Wonder & The Museum Experience

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Wonder & The Museum Experience

What is the role of wonder in a museum experience? Can it be achieved in a traditional museum if you occupy the space between total novice and expert where many adults reside?

When I was a child, museum visits were full of wonder. A lot of that falls under what Summer Block describes as the magical thinking of childhood in this piece. As children, we know nothing of the world and therefore everything is possible. A museum was full of possibilities; things that were lovely, things that were scary, things that were alive. There’s a reason why the Night at the Museum movies (or Toy Story, or, when I was young, The Indian in the Cupboard) have been so successful. They show a world of objects coming to life that is assumed to be possible for kids. When every day is an explosion of new information (which, I’d say, is probably technically true for adults, too, but we know how to filter better than kids), you don’t really know where the line is between what you know and what you don’t know. 

I have only recently begun to enjoy visiting art museums. I have never taken an art history course in my life, but I am ~in the museum world~, so I feel like I should know better than to walk into an art museum as if I’m, like, allowed there or something. That is a crazy way to think! I’m a museum educator! I believe that museums are for everyone! I want people to feel empowered to make museums their own! I work every day to open up museum experiences so they’re not just for experts! And here I am, telling you that I thought art museum experiences were just for experts. Or, rather, I thought that I was not enough of an expert in art to have a legitimate experience in an art museum. I knew the line between what I know and don’t know about art is sooooo far on the novice end of things that I distrusted myself.

A few weeks ago, I visited my hometown art museum with my spouse and we had a grand old time. We took selfies and climbed on art (that you were allowed to climb on!) and talked about what things from our own lives the pictures on the walls reminded us of. We posed like sculptures and took breaks sprawled out on benches and imagined dialogues between people in paintings. It was a jin-yoo-wine fun time, and at the end I told him about how I’d just discovered art museums and what fun they can be. I will probably never have a deep knowledge of art history, but I can look closely and trust myself to have an emotional response. And I can allow myself to have an inquiring mind and dig out those facts and stories that interest me. And I can embrace the wonder of a whole bunch of objects collected in one place because we think they tell us something about what it means to be human.

On Sunday, I drove through rural Alabama to a town called Seale, where artist Butch Anthony lives and runs his Museum of Wonder. We meandered through his drive-through art galleries, and then spent time playing with the dogs that wander the property while we waited for him to arrive and open the museum. Inside the barn and adjoining spaces, Anthony’s art hangs next to taxidermied animals, found objects, and a variety of what he continuously referred to as “junk,” which I kind of love. His workshop is also in the same space, and we got to poke our heads in and talk a little bit about his process of creating art. It feels a little like an old roadside attraction and a little like a very well-curated flea market and a little like an art museum. And the experience had everyone in my party embracing the process of discovery, of coming around a corner and seeing something surprising. I left there feeling invigorated and curious and, yes, full of wonder. Get a glimpse in this video:

I also left there wondering about wonder in a traditional museum experience. The Museum of Wonder is a special place, because it’s an art installation in itself. Butch Anthony can control the entire experience, without reporting to a board of trustees or outside stakeholders. I work in a history museum. It can be difficult to sell the idea of wonder in a history museum, because we have the idea that visitors to a history museum can come away with an understanding of the real way things were in the past. We don’t want to inspire wonder, we want to instill knowledge. I have a couple of problems with this idea.

  1. There’s no one “real” historical narrative.
  2. Existential wonder is a part of the human experience.
  3. It’s putting reality and wonder at odds with each other, when they can and do live harmoniously together.

I think that if you inspire feelings of wonder in a visitor to a history museum, it’s because you have successfully engaged them in thinking about history as a real, living thing, and about people who lived in the past as real, [previously] living people. And, I think that encouraging feelings of wonder in the museum, whether in an art or history or science or whatever museum, will make people feel empowered to explore and to stoke the flames of curiosity. It will make them feel that the museum is safe for those who are not content experts, which most of us are not. It will allow them to play in informal educational environments, and to learn in ways that work for them about things that interest them. And that will, in turn, encourage them to create their own art or historical knowledge-making or science experiments or whatever.

When I have schoolkids on a tour of my museum, I always end by encouraging them to think of themselves as part of history, albeit a history that hasn’t quite been written yet. “Whose stories might we be hearing in a history museum in 20 years?” I ask. The moment when they realize that their own stories are still being written and might have historical impact is a moment when wonder dawns on their faces. And that’s awesome. I would love for us to find more ways to insert discovery, and exploration, and even wonder into all museum experiences.

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Farvel, Maelstrom

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Farvel, Maelstrom

Last night, the doors to Maelstrom, a boat ride in the Norway pavilion at Florida’s Epcot, closed forever. In its place, Disney is going to create an attraction based on the hugely popular movie Frozen. I have, you might guess, LOTS OF ISSUES WITH THIS. But first, a love note to a now-shuttered attraction.

The Norway pavilion opened in 1988, the last of the current country pavilions to be completed. My first trip to Disney World was in January, 1991, so I have never known the Vacation Kingdom without Norway. For Maelstrom, you board a replica of a 10th-century Viking warrior’s longship – complete with dragon-head bow – to ride through a series of dioramas depicting Norwegian culture, natural landscapes, history, and industry. There are trolls. Lots of trolls. There are Vikings and Polar Bears and oil rigs and lots and tons of fiber optic effects. There is a moment at the apex of the ride where the boat scoots out over a waterfall that fronts the show building. When I was a child, this ride filled me with abject terror, and wonder, and a weird fascination with trolls that had nothing to do with Troll Dolls. 

Walt Disney World is full of tiny corners of thematic brilliance, where you’re transported out of a theme park and into an alternate reality. You know that you’re in the middle of Florida, but you can allow your brain to slide into the ecstatic possibility that you have traveled momentarily across time and/or space. The unload area at the end of Maelstrom has always been, to me, a near perfect execution of thematic brilliance. Your longship comes out of the mists of time into a lovely simulacrum of a tiny Norwegian fishing village. I spent many of my childhood visits to Disney parks trying to figure out if anyone actually lived in the themed setpieces in different areas, but nowhere was I more convinced than in Norway. Lace curtains and candles in the windows, the sound of the water lapping against the boats, a bicycle leaned against a building. It’s “night time” and the light feels murky the way that light in coastal towns often seems. I was always sure that if we waited in that space for just one more second, someone would come out of one of the clapboard houses with a fishing rod or something. There is no way to capture its quaintness in photos, but here’s one, anyway:

The ride has run, virtually unchanged, for 26 years. The film they show at the end, titled “The Spirit of Norway,” has also continued running in all its late-80s glory. Now, when I ride, I am full of nostalgia. It’s still a fun ride, though the 80s animatronics are stiff and the blacklight painted Vikings are silly. I still feel like a creep looking into the windows of the houses in the unload area, as though someone actually lived there. And it still gives me a sense of having experienced a taste of Norway — which isn’t even possible from a five-minute boat ride and film, but that’s how you know the pavilion is successful — and a desire to visit the country. The experience gave me the impression that Norwegians are sturdy, strong, determined, and a bit whimsical (the troooolllls!). And now it’s going to be a showcase for two new Disney princesses to sparkle and sing and love their way out of trouble.

The other problem, which has been stated over and over by opponents of the change, is that Frozen did not take place in Norway. It takes place in Arrendelle, which, though loosely based on places in Norway, is fictional. The story is (very!) loosely based on Hans Christian Anderson’s Danish story, The Snow Queen. Epcot is meant to be a permanent world’s fair, teaching visitors about other cultures and new technologies while also entertaining them. World Showcase displays the cultures, foods, and products of each country that has a pavilion. Yes, there are lots of problems with World Showcase! Lots and lots! I have many thoughts on that to share another day! But for now, let’s assume that the mission there is benign and that the Norway pavilion is just Norway bein’ Norway, among a bunch of other countries bein’ countries.

If the mission of World Showcase is to bring ambassadors from these countries to the tourists of Central Florida, then there is absolutely no place there for an entire ride devoted to cartoon princesses of loose Scandinavian origin. I have understood – with a fair amount of eye-rolling – the placement of fairytale meet-and-greets in the pavilions of World Showcase (Winnie the Pooh & friends or Alice in Wonderland in the UK, Belle and the Beast in France, Snow White in Germany, etc.). I have even hoped that placing these characters in these countries would help guests think about the origins of these stories and perhaps even encourage them to seek out the originals. And even when Donald Duck and friends were inserted into the ride in the Mexico pavilion, they were exploring the tourist sites of the country, so it didn’t feel too much like a slap in the face. This whole Frozen thing, though, does.

We went to Disney World earlier this year. The Frozen craze was in full swing, with hours-long waits to meet Anna & Elsa (in the Norway pavilion) within minutes of Epcot’s opening each day. We were there at opening several days, and saw the parents sprinting towards World Showcase once they got in the gate, pushing massive rental strollers into which were tucked red-faced, bleary-eyed children. I get it, there’s a demand. At the time, Frozen had already begun to creep into the pavilion, but in a way that I thought was actually quite successful: a museum exhibit. At the front of the pavilion is a replica of a Stave Church, a symbol of Norway and a bit of classic Norwegian architecture. There have always been exhibits about traditional Norwegian culture inside. When we pushed our way through the doors of the church this time, though, we found new displays.

In museological terms, they were rather old-fashioned and, well, boring. But the interesting thing was the way that they connected elements from Frozen with aspects of Norwegian culture. One display talked about the bunad, the traditional clothing that can be seen on the cast members staffing the pavilion and on Anna in Frozen. The case talks about production methods, how they’ve changed over the years, and occasions on which Norwegians wear the garments now that they’re not used on a daily basis. There’s information about Norwegian jewelry. And there’s a picture of Anna from the film, wearing an ensemble that looks a lot like what’s on the mannequin.

Another display talks about Kristoff, the male lead in the film, whose sidekick, Sven, is a reindeer. In creating Kristoff, animators drew inspiration from Norway’s indigenous population, the Sami. Traditional clothing and information on Sami culture is presented. The knowledge that Kristoff is supposed to be a representative of that culture actually added a layer of depth to the film for me.

These are successful movie tie-ins for a pavilion that is supposed to be based in real, actual Norway. Tell me about the actual place, and tell me how it’s so awesome that it inspired you to create this piece of (commercially successful) art! I am DOWN WITH THIS. In fact, I think it would be cool for Disney to DO MORE OF THIS. But let’s allow visitors to explore a simulation of the real world and trust them to find delight, adventure, and inspiration for further exploration in the world beyond the boundaries of theme parks and movies. That is the true value of a park like Epcot, and that’s what’s being gutted when they remove Maelstrom from the pavilion. 

A year ago, before anyone knew Frozen would go on to the success it’s enjoyed, I would have begged Disney to update Maelstrom, because it was kind of a joke to visitors — especially if you didn’t have a sentimental attachment to it like I did. But this is not what I meant! 

Last night, at 8 pm Central, 9 pm Eastern, I toasted Maelstrom as it officially closed. The boats continued rattling through the attraction for a while after that, since the standby line had grown to a more-than-2-hour wait in the hours before. 

“You are not the first to pass this way, nor shall you be the last. Those who seek the spirit of Norway face peril and adventure, but more often find beauty and charm. We have always lived with the sea, so look first to the spirit of the seafarer…”

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Tracks

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Tracks

Once, in grad school, I dropped my phone on the tracks while standing on the Queensbound platform of the N train at Times Square. I made a transfer there every day on my way home from campus, and, like most days, I was pretty fried. It was late in the semester, I was rushing to finish everything ever, and it was about a million degrees underground.

It was a Samsung smartphone, and I watched it fall onto the tracks in slow motion, the back cover and the battery scattering when it bounced. I looked at it lying face down on the wooden track support, and tried to puzzle out what to do. I couldn’t reach it, since the tracks are about 5 feet lower than the platform. There was a payphone an arm’s length away, but who would I call? The police?

A man who had been standing nearby walked over, took off his messenger bag, and handed it to me. “Wait, what? No.” He said he was going to jump down and retrieve the phone. I really like following rules and also really like not yet having seen a dead body outside of a hospital or funeral home, so I told him no. I had to argue with him to keep him off the tracks! It is not sane behavior to ARGUE with a STRANGER about whether you’re going to jump onto subway tracks with a live third rail and also large and heavy trains regularly traveling on them to retrieve her dumb phone because she’s a dumb person who dumbly dropped it!*

I finally went to find a station attendant, who was completely unmoved by my plight but promised to call for someone to come get the phone. “Do you mind going back and watching it, though?” she asked. I didn’t have any other plans. “Sometimes if a homeless person sees something like that on the tracks, they’ll jump down to get it, and, well…” Back to that dead body.

I sat there watching trains lumber over my lost phone, sure that it was broken anyway, sure that I was going to pass out from the heat, sure that one of these trains would somehow crush it if it wasn’t already shattered, sure that my boyfriend was going to assume I was dead and not wait for me for dinner. And then, ambling down the platform: my heroes. Two dudes in baggy jeans and ratty t-shirts and reflective construction vests. They were carrying claw grabber things on long sticks, and once I flagged them down, my phone and its component parts were in my hand within seconds. I looked down to put the device back together, and – POOF – they were gone. Like magic. 

Everyone has a story about dropping something on the tracks. But, pro-tip, again: Don’t let strangers jump onto the tracks for you! Just don’t! You don’t want that burden!

*New Yorkers are in fact very nice and generous and also very weird and creepy. Sometimes all at once.

Decided to share after reading this article, which was shared by Evie in her weekly newsletter. Sign up now! Photo of the 7-train yard at the end of the line in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, one of my favorite places.

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In Defense of Souvenirs

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In Defense of Souvenirs

Our visit to Vulcan this weekend included a stop in the museum on the grounds. The museum is small, but includes some great information about Birmingham, the iron industry, world’s fairs and other early twentieth-century amusements, and the million billion things that have happened in Alabama since Vulcan was built. It also included a whole room chock full of Vulcan souvenirs. Cases of statuettes (seen above), a whole display of collectible spoons, oodles of postcards from throughout the years, and artworks that were inspired by the statue.

Souvenirs, like selfies, are not new. They had examples of statuettes from each phase of Vulcan’s life, including one that was created to be sold while they were still raising money to build the statue for the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. Before today’s practice of designing and manufacturing all kinds of tchotchkes and junk to sell in souvenir stands, people still collected items from places they visited. People were chipping chunks off of the fabled Plymouth Rock even before the USA celebrated its 50th birthday. So many people were ripping pieces off of George Washington’s Mount Vernon – even before the estate was open to the public! – that caretakers began manufacturing souvenirs, often made from trees and such from the estate. Humans want to have a physical reminder of places they’ve been, moments they’ve lived through, crises they’ve witnessed.

In the months following September 11th, vendors on New York City’s streets began selling bootleg souvenirs and cobbled-together photo books featuring images of the day of the attacks, the site of the World Trade Center, and the recovery effort. People bought them, earnestly hoping for something to remind them that they were there. They had walked those streets and witnessed the place where the historic events had taken place. When the National September 11th Memorial & Museum opened its Preview Center on Vesey Street, it included a gift shop, which was very popular. And the museum has a store now that it’s open, as well. I don’t think there’s a problem with that. I try to keep my cynicism in check, but the reality is that even if the Memorial shut down its store (which is also a revenue stream to sustain the museum), people would open their wallets for street vendors and others selling 9/11 souvenirs. I understand the concerns people have, a reaction to perceived vulgarity on a site where so many died. However, I believe that the desire to collect souvenirs is a response to a few core realities of our existence: that experience is ephemeral, that memory is aided by physical reminders, that our very existence on this planet is fleeting. So put a snow globe on your shelf when you get home. You were there. You believe yourself.

When Vulcan was installed at the Alabama state fairgrounds after the end of the 1904 St. Louis Exposition, his right arm, which extends skyward, was accidentally installed upside down and without his spear, which had been lost on the way from St. Louis. It remained that way until Vulcan was reinstalled in the park where he now sits, 30ish years later. Statues from this time period have his hand upside down, palm up. People want their mementos to reflect the reality they experienced, even when it’s wrong.

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On Confederate Memorial Day

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On Confederate Memorial Day

Monday was a state holiday in Alabama and several other southern states: Confederate Memorial Day. State employees had a paid day off, and in a city where there are many state employees, the downtown district was eerily quiet. Confederate Memorial Day has a murky beginning. Following the American Civil War, towns throughout the North and South began to honor the memory of the war on Decoration Day. They would hold ceremonies, honor surviving veterans, and decorate the graves of those who died during the war. By some accounts, it was a healing day, a chance for Americans from all sides to pause and reflect on the terrible rift that had been the Civil War. Eventually, Decoration Day became Memorial Day, a federal holiday to honor the dead from all of America’s wars. Confederate Memorial Day continued in the South, along with other holidays like Lee-Jackson Day and Jefferson Davis’ birthday.

As I have recently joined the ranks of state employees, I had Monday off. It was strange to be out and about on a Monday that the rest of the world — and yes, most of the state — thought was just a regular Monday. I was much more cognizant of the day’s meaning than I am on other holiday Mondays. But, I do not relate to the history of the Confederacy. I spent the day pondering the Civil War, the very existence of anything called Confederate Memorial Day, the production of historical knowledge, and, well… a lot of stuff, some of which is here.

When I tell people about Confederate Memorial Day, the reaction is usually one of shock and disgust. I’d like to step back from the content of the day and think more broadly around the regional production of knowledge in the United States and the way the North and South think about the Civil War. I think that the way we frame Civil War and slavery history in the US is hampering our ability to discuss modern-day inequality in this country.

I am currently learning Alabama history so I can interpret it for the visitors to the museum where I work. It’s been interesting, because I am Northern-bred, Northern-born, and Northern-grown. I am from Connecticut, and have only otherwise lived in Massachusetts and New York prior to Alabama. I am also a white woman, most of whose family immigrated to the US in the years after slavery was abolished here. (Though, that does not mean my family was not complicit in the evils of our country’s complicated racial history.) In school, we spent a disproportionate amount of time learning about Colonial America and the Revolutionary War, because that is the history that feels most important to the soil on which Northerners stand.

Visitors to Boston often walk the Freedom Trail, a literal red line painted on the sidewalk connecting sites of colonial-era importance in the city. But Boston’s didn’t freeze in time once the Revolutionary War was won. It has a rich history full of fascinating events spanning across the decades. The Molasses Flood. The Great Fire. Southie’s Busing Riots. Just a few things off the top of my head. And yet, tourists in Boston today flock to its colonial-era sites, walking a path that was established in the 1950s, one of America’s great eras of reframing history.

Montgomery, Alabama, has a complicated history, and it is one that is worn on its sleeve. Historical markers are all over town, noting the locations of things as mundane as a house Helen Keller visited often (her sister lived there) to sites with such gravitas as the location of some of the city’s several slave markets. The minor league baseball stadium downtown is on the site of barracks that held prisoners of war during the Civil War. The state capitol building was used as the capitol building of the Confederate States of America following their incorporation right here in this city, and Jefferson Davis took the oath of office as President of the CSA on the front steps. A hundred years later, following decades of codified injustice (all following more than a century of slavery), African-Americans and their allies marched these streets, boycotted the city bus system, and rallied on the steps of the very same capitol during the civil rights era.

My US history classes spent a lot — a LOT — of time on North America’s 17th- and 18th-century history. We learned and relearned the events leading up to and following our declaration of independence from King George III. And then, with the few months left in the school year, we hurtled through 19th- and 20th-century history at warp speed, lucky to even get to World War II before finals were upon us. I am confident that this was not the curriculum intended for us impressionable youngsters, but I left school with little knowledge of American events after we became the good ol’ US of A, and that includes the Civil War. But why?

History is written by the victors. By those in power. The critique of history as the epic tale of the struggle of rich old white men is so well-known as to feel trite. But I would argue that this power dynamic is also inherent in the preference of certain histories in certain regions. We in the North have this idea that we were the good guys in the Civil War. This is, at its core, an oversimplified idea that does not take into account the North’s then-recent direct participation in slavery, and that ignores the fact that industry in the North relied on the free labor of slaves in the South. Those now-dead mill towns I knew growing up in New England grew in the 19th century on the backs of slaves who were growing cotton down here in the South. Shipping and ship-building, other major New England trades, supported the Triangular Trade. And, don’t forget, there were slaves in the North, though not on the scale of the great plantations of the South. There were also Southerners who fought for the Union, or opposed the secession and eventual war altogether. It is far easier to not deal with these complexities and instead perpetuate — either by actually saying so or through omission — the idea of a black-and-white, good-vs.-evil Civil War.

When we run out of time to cover the Civil War properly in school in favor of glorifying another period of history of which we are more proud, we deprive students of the chance to think critically about a hugely important moment in our nation’s history. I think the lack of serious thought about the Civil War, its causes, and its outcomes in the North leads to a misguided belief that the North is morally superior to the South, even today. It leads to a belief that racial and other bigotry is only a problem faced by Southerners, that we in the North are in a post-racism era, that racism encountered in the North today is an incidental accident rather than the product of systemic discrimination. It perpetuates an ahistorical approach to solving systemic problems. And, it creates a whole lot of bad blood in the South, some of which gets repurposed as pride.

I come from a dead New England industrial town, one known for its poverty, its recent immigrants, its crime, its nothingness. I am lucky to have been born white and middle class, to have become educated, to have left. Even still, I, like most of my hometown friends, have a fierce pride for the scrappy, terrible town where I was raised. The alternative would be to be ashamed of it, which is what outsiders have been telling me I should be for as long as I can remember. I am not saying the former Confederate states shouldn’t reflect on their history and try to right the wrongs of the past. I am saying we all should. I am saying that simplifying history to fit into a primitive good-guys/bad-guys narrative is harmful to our ability to discuss race, economics, inequality, and justice in any way productive way. It damages our ability to administer any sort of reparations. It reduces Southerners to a monolithic population that feels they need to take a defensive stance when it comes to their history, and, therefore, when it comes to the present.

It is very important to be consciously critical of all historic information, because the past is contested territory that is always being co-opted for the present. That is true of Civil War history, too. So, in place of Confederate Memorial Day, I would suggest something different. A Civil War Remembrance Day, perhaps, to be celebrated across our nation, so that we can mourn those who died as a result of the horrific institution of slavery, heal the persistent wounds of the institution and the war, remember those who died in the war even as we think carefully about their reasons for fighting, and try to begin a better, more complete dialogue about our past, present, and future.

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Happy Birthday, New York World's Fair!

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Happy Birthday, New York World's Fair!

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the opening of the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair. This year is also the 75th anniversary of the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair, which took place in the same park in Queens. I can’t be at today’s festivities (which include the New York State Pavilion being open to the public from 11 am to 2 pm – if you’re in New York City, please try to find a way to take advantage of this RARE opportunity!), but I made a quick and dirty Google Map featuring some of my favorite highlights of each fair. In most cases, I’ve marked spots where you can still see some physical evidence of the item or event, but a few – like the Carousel of Progress & it’s a small world pavilion locations – are just grassy fields today.

I’ll continue adding to this as time goes on (and as I learn the finer points of Google Mapping), but this is a pretty good start if you’re a fairground newbie. A link to the full map, freed from its iframe, is here.

Also, because I am pretending I am at the fairgrounds today, here’s a picture of me with the Unisphere when they had the fountains on for the Queens Museum’s grand reopening last fall.


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Park Benches and Public Performance: The World’s Fair & Beyond

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Park Benches and Public Performance: The World’s Fair & Beyond

When was the last time you actively thought about a park bench? I mean, beyond, "Hey, there's a bench! What a wonderful place to take respite from my outdoor activity! I am going to sit on that bench, and sit on it good!"? Benches are one of those objects that we prize for their utility. Yes, they are also often lovely, but that isn't our primary interest in them. In an ideal world, they are just set-dressing in a beautiful park, and there is always one available for us to use under the shade of a broad-branched tree.

One of my first weekends here, I was taking a walk through our local postage-stamp park when I glanced at a park bench and noticed the embossed mark of its maker on the leg.

This bench hailed all the way from the Nutmeg State! Just like me! Because I am a sucker, I immediately decided it was a sign that I could also find a comfortable home in Alabama, where I could grow lichen all over me, just like that bench!

And then, through the magic of Twitter, the story unfolded:

Fantastic! If there was ever a bench for me to discover, it was this one! This bench was designed and built originally for the 1939-40 New York World's Fair, though it is in use in parks around New York City and the rest of the country through today (obviously). It's a pretty classic park bench. According to the manufacturer's website, Robert Moses collaborated with Kenneth Lynch himself on the design of the benches, in order to maximize comfort and improve the efficiency of the manufacturing process. Ms. Sears also informed me that Central and Prospect Parks use the Central Park Settee, also created by K. Lynch and Sons, and they still order them from the company today.

Both the 1939 and 1964 world's fairs were held in the same place in New York City, Flushing Meadows Corona Park. I've written about the remnants of the fairs before, more than once. It probably doesn't surprise you that one weekend just before I moved, on my way to LaGuardia to return a rental car, I stopped off at the former fairgrounds for a last look-see before I headed south for a while. While I was there, I noticed the benches. Because, I am learning, I apparently like benches. Anyway, this is what they look like in 2014:

Those curved legs and that jaunty posture! No other bench has ever shouted "SPACE AGE" at me so clearly. I had walked by these benches dozens of times before without giving them a second glance. This visit, though, I snapped a photo, figuring they were part of the park's infrastructure that hasn't been changed since the 64-65 fair.

I remembered seeing a photo of women seated on benches at the 60s fair, and did a quick Google search to turn it up. The photo was shot by Gary Winogrand, and was recently on exhibit at SF MoMA.

If you look beyond the ladies, you'll recognize the shape of the benches' legs from the photo above.

Armed with the information about the manufacturer of the 1939 World's Fair benches, I took to their website and discovered that K. Lynch and Sons also has a 1964-65 World's Fair model bench, though it's not clear to me if they designed the ones originally used during the fair or just based their model on those. I did find some info on the materials used in these benches, and about updates made to them in the years since the fair:

All benches for the 1964 World’s Fair were composed of cast aluminium supports with green fiberglass slats. Only 8 of these benches retain their fiberglass slats and all the rest have been replaced with wood, which are fixed on top of and not wrapped around the aluminum knuckles. This changed their ergonomic profile, so sit on each type and see which is more comfortable!

I also found a piece from the NYC Parks Department identifying this model as one still used in parks, but without much further information. I haven't seen this bench type in any other parks in NYC or elsewhere, but if you have, let me know!

The 1960s bench seems a perfect artifact of its era and for its purpose. The 20th century world's fairs were future-gazing extravaganzas, and 1960s futurism was all curved lines and modern materials (remember, these benches were originally outfitted with fiberglass slats). Think of the intro to The Jetsons, which originally aired in 1962-63. Everythaaang is curvy, and all those buildings on tall poles remind me of the observation decks on the NY State Pavilion, still standing 100 feet from where I snapped the photo of benches a few weeks ago.

The 39-40 World's Fair was also preoccupied with the future, but its benches were Victorian in design. In fact, that NYC Parks post actually says the 30s bench was based on a turn-of-the-century design. I don't mean this as a condemnation of the benches, since they are lovely and still in use all over the place. In fact, perhaps they were based on an older design as a way of future-proofing them; Moses, et al, knew the benches would be in use beyond the end of the fair, and didn't want them to be immediately dated. We saw similar attitudes in approaches to futuristic theming later in the 20th century, when anyone trying to create a futuristic world went back to 1950s ideas and aesthetics about the future.

I did a little more sleuthing around, and found similar benches in this post about seating at Disney's Animal Kingdom. And, in Disney's Hollywood Studios, Jack Spence photographed what I'm pretty sure is actually a 1939 World's Fair bench, though it's missing the crossbars behind the back:

Another photo in that post shows a bench with legs similar to the 64-65 World's Fair bench. I only wish I'd done this research before my recent trip to Walt Disney World, so I could have been on the lookout for more!

The fact that each fair had its own bench designs, that several of the parks in NYC have their own, and that so many different thematic areas in Disney theme parks have their own seating designs, speaks to the importance of seating in setting the stage for the activities that go on there. In 1964, organizers wanted visitors to the New York World's Fair to be thinking about the future, to feel like they were getting a glimpse into it, to feel like the Avenue of Progress wasn't just a street, but a path to the future. So they created a bench. In the area of Disney's Hollywood Studios where the above bench was found, designers wanted visitors to relax in a picturesque version of the USA where some of their favorite movie characters may have lived. And, in the parks that still use the 1939 World's Fair bench today, everyday citizens are invited to sit on a picturesque, stereotypical park bench, the kind you see in paintings and in the movies, and enjoy the day. You may not realize it when you're participating in it, but the design of the bench you're sitting on – the whimsy of the curved wrought iron, the classic green slats – is probably influencing your park experience in a positive way. By sitting on that bench, you are giving a performance of What it Means to Go to the Park, whether you're in Central Park in New York City, or Cloverdale Park in Montgomery, Alabama.

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Open House NY: The TWA Flight Center at JFK Airport

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Open House NY: The TWA Flight Center at JFK Airport

Last October, I got to explore the TWA Flight Center as part of the 10th annual Open House NY Weekend, a glorious weekend in the city where architects, private residents, and organizations open their doors and let the public in, in order to raise awareness and appreciation for the city’s architectural landmarks and design treasures. They released the guide to this year’s weekend, and I was delighted to see the TWA Flight Center on the program again.

Closed since 2001, the TWA Flight Center at JFK Airport is currently empty and now ringed in by JetBlue’s shiny, new Terminal 5.  There have been many attempts to restore and repurpose the iconic space since then, but nothing has quite made it through (most recently, I’ve heard it’s going to be turned into a branch of the Standard Hotel).

The flight center was dedicated in 1962, and is now recognized as a glorious icon of forward-thinking design. The architect, Eero Saarinen, designed the space for efficiency, realizing that the age of mass air travel was upon us. It was one of the first terminals to feature enclosed jetways (the glorious tubesshown in Catch Me if You Can), baggage carousels, a PA system, and closed circuit television. Unfortunately, as time went on, planes got bigger, passenger expectations changed, and the terminal just couldn’t handle the demands of modern airline traffic. When American Airlines bought TWA in 2001, following the airline’s extended financial troubles, the terminal was closed. In 1994, it was declared a historic landmark, and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2005.

I visited the Flight Center on a rainy morning last October, and fell in love immediately. I admit that I didn’t know much about it before trekking down to JFK, but it was absolutely worth the trip. The building’s streamlined, uplifted design makes you want to get in an airplane immediately, and the whiteness of the interior makes you feel like you’re already among the clouds. Huge windows in the seating area allow you to daydream about the destinations of planes you’re watching take off, and the many intimate corners of the terminal recall the romance of mid-century commercial air travel. And those tunnels! I can only imagine how it must have felt to pass through the long, sloping tunnels on your way to an airplane to adventures and exotic locales.

 

Personally, I was struck by how different modern airport terminals feel compared to the atmosphere in the TWA Flight Center. Granted, a crowd of design dorks are different from a bunch of harried travelers, but still. On a recent trip, I had a layover in Atlanta where I wandered the airport for a few hours, thinking about how all airports feel basically the same, and how the cobbled-together terminals representing different eras somehow all feel like a mall, and a weird, liminal space all at once. When I travel by plane today, I feel transparent, and I can only ever grit my teeth and wait for it to be over. I can’t imagine that waiting for your flight on the luscious red upholstered benches in the TWA Flight Center could have felt that way; a visit to the terminal today is a glimpse into the days when plane travel felt glamorous.

I hope that the Powers That Be settle on a fate for the TWA Flight Center soon. It’s a fascinating building that deserves more than occasional public use. The same way that Philip Johnson commentedthat enclosing the building by the JetBlue terminal was like tying a bird’s wings, leaving a building created for public use empty and stagnant is like slowly suffocating that bird. Public space should be active in order to remain relevant. And next weekend, you have a chance to activate the TWA Flight Center during the 2013 Open House NY Weekend. I won’t be able to make it this year, but I’ll be thinking of the flight center fondly on Sunday.

P.S. If you like this, check out a few of the other old airline-specific terminals at JFK. Some super cool history and architecture there!

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Roadside Deep South America

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Roadside Deep South America

A quick change of pace and locale. Even though I live in beautiful Astoria, Queens, my husband is currently homesteading in the wilds of Alabama. That makes it sound much more dramatic than it is — he’s a lawyer, and he has a fellowship with an incredible organization in Montgomery. He’s been there since June, and has settled in nicely. The pace is slower, the air is thicker, and the sun sets a little earlier than up here, which is to say that he’s pretty pleased.

Montgomery’s riverfront on the Alabama River.

Montgomery’s riverfront on the Alabama River.

We drove E down to Alabama when he moved: 17 hellish hours in a tiny car over two days, with two drugged out cats in the backseat. It was one of the least fun things I’ve ever done. BUT! We did get to do one awesome thing, and it’s all thanks to one of my favorite websites, Roadside America. If you’ve ever been on the website, you know that it’s an amazing wonderland where you can learn about things like the World’s Largest Ten Commandments or Trundle Manor.  And, when we were dragging all of his personal effects down to Alabama the Beautiful in my tiny, beat up Hyundai Elantra, we used it to find Foamhenge.

Foamhenge is a roadside attraction located in Natural Bridge, Virginia. It is, as the name suggests, a full-size replica of Stonehenge made entirely by one man, completely out of styrofoam. The foam is painted with a faux stone finish, and there is a fiberglass wizard keeping watch over the whole site. It. Is. Amazing. And when you’re six hours into a road trip where the cats won’t stop meowing directly behind your head, it’s even better.

My last trip to visit E was over Labor Day weekend, and I was there for nearly a whole week! We had a pretty jam-packed agenda of stuff that E wanted to show me after spending a month and a half getting acquainted with the place. One day, we drove up to Birmingham to visit the inspiring Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and see some of the nearby historic sites. On our way back, I got to thinking that we must be passing some awesome sites that we just didn’t know about because we weren’t locals, and that’s when I found my new favorite app: the Roadside America app!

It can use your phone’s GPS to figure out where you are and recommend attractions in the area for you to check out. Our first stop was Alabama’s Statue of Liberty, a one-fifth scale replica of our copper gal striding above the highway near Birmingham.  Originally built to perch above an insurance company’s offices in Birmingham, it now has its own park near the headquarters for Alabama’s Boy Scouts of America, which is also in an interesting building. Seeing Lady Liberty peeking above the trees almost made me forget I wasn’t in New York. And! Her torch is actual fire, lit by Alabama natural gas. (Sidenote: There are SO MANY replica Statues of Liberty! I want to see them all.)

Our second stop on our drive back to Montgomery was this amazing water tower in the form of a peach in Clanton, Alabama. This sucker holds half a million gallons of water, and is placed within sight of the highway, near an extensive peach and peach-products market. It is a thing of beauty.

As we were getting back in the car after one of these stops, E asked me why I love stuff like giant peach water towers and replica Statues of Liberty. I suppose that I love them because they are completely absurd, but are usually taken totally seriously by their creators. Often, I feel that we’re all falling into that trap — we take our lives, our decisions, our needs so totally seriously, but in reality there is a certain absurdity to this world and to this life, and as humans we’re just lucky that we have brains big enough to notice the absurdity of others, but rarely of ourselves. That sounds really cynical, but I actually really love that about our species. We can impart importance even when we suspect that the test of time will render us all rather absurd.

(Post Script: I just found out about Bamahenge. Rest assured that a visit to this will happen, too.)

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Complex Beauty: Janet Cardiff’s Forty Part Motet at the Cloisters

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Complex Beauty: Janet Cardiff’s Forty Part Motet at the Cloisters

I haven’t been to The Cloisters in about a million years (scientific!), and Sunday was a glorious early Autumn day in the city, so I figured it was about time to make the trek to Fort Tryon Park. An additional draw was the chance to experience Janet Cardiff’s Forty Part Motet, a work I loved at PS1.

The piece is considered Cardiff’s masterwork. She recorded each member of a 40-part choir singing their individual parts of a 16th century motet and plays each recording on its own, dedicated speaker. The effect is gorgeous when you’re standing amongst the speakers, hitting you square in the chest in a way that most recordings of the human voice just don’t. And, as an additional layer of the experience, you can walk to each speaker and listen to the individual parts. I haven’t been to a choir performance in a while, but I don’t think they welcome audience members to walk from performer to performer.

 At PS1, the speakers were arrayed in an empty, white-walled former classroom, with large windows letting light pour in. The work was surprising and interesting, and it was a delight to wander among the speakers after a beer at WarmUp last summer. At the Cloisters, Forty Part Motet is placed in the “Fuentidueña Chapel, which features the late twelfth-century apse from the church of San Martín at Fuentidueña, near Segovia, Spain.” The chapel is impressive, and has wonderful acoustics, but I actually found the setting distracted from the work. It put it into a religious context that, for someone who does not identify with that religion, made me feel like I should not be enjoying the piece as a work of art, but as a religious work. And it also pushed the piece into the realm of the heavy-handed and, dare I say, a bit cheesy.

That said, I still found the work inspiring, and admit that I probably wouldn’t have made it up to the Cloisters without it as a draw. The chapel was bustling with visitors on Sunday, and the galleries were well-attended. And even though I preferred the experience at PS1, there was some magic in hearing strains of the music filtering through the labyrinthine rooms and courtyards of the museum. It was a reminder of the lives many of the objects on display at the Cloisters had before they were in a museum, when they were in use, and that is a powerful thing.

Forty Part Motet is the first contemporary piece to be shown at the Cloisters, which itself deserves more thought than I am qualified to give it. It will be on display at the Cloisters until December 8, and is definitely worth the long subway ride to northern Manhattan. After you visit, consider jumping on theM4 bus for a scenic ride down to the Met, same-day admission to which is included with your Cloisters ticket. (A slightly stranger spot to visit near the Cloisters is the Shrine of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, where the remains of Mother Cabrini, who was canonized in 1946, are displayed.)

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The Cat's Pyjamas: The 2013 Jazz Age Lawn Party

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The Cat's Pyjamas: The 2013 Jazz Age Lawn Party

This past weekend was the second and final weekend in 2013 for the Jazz Age Lawn Party on Governors Island. Now in its 8th year, the Lawn Party is hosted by Michael Arenella and His Dreamland Orchestra, and is a chance to put on some 1920s duds, learn the Charleston, sip champagne cocktails, and listen to the beautiful melodies of the Jazz Age. In previous years that I’ve attended, it’s been a relatively sleepy little event, something that was a bit of a secret. This year, though, it was clear that the secret was out — when I arrived at the ferry terminal for the second ferry of the day, the line stretched far beyond the building along the lower Manhattan waterfront.

First, some photos. And please excuse the horrific quality – I’m in the market for a new camera.

First, the good things about Saturday’s event.  It was very well attended and everyone seemed to be in a great mood. The costumes were fantastic (though seriously, ladies, let’s all agree not to order the“1920s flapper!!!!” Halloween costume for the event next year, okay?), and several groups really went the extra mile and brought pretty insane picnic setups that were fun to look at. The expanded food and beverage offerings were a great addition, and I was happy to see more vegetarian options available. St. Germain was out in full force and kept the revelers well-supplied with champagne cocktails. The weather was glorious! And the entertainment? Flawless, as usual.

However, there were also some problems. The event has grown magnificently in the last few years, to the point where it’s sort of outgrown its space. The Lawn Party takes place in Colonel’s Row, a long, narrow, triangular patch of grass lined by beautiful old trees and lovely old brick buildings. It is the perfect space for this event. However, this year’s crowd overwhelmed the space, so that by 1:30 pm there were picnickers set up everywhere and very few paths through the blankets to get to the food, or to the dance floor. There were also only two entrances to the space, meaning long admission lines even for folks like myself who had purchased tickets in advance.

The ticket prices have also climbed significantly over the last few years. If I recall correctly, 2011’s tickets were $8. In 2012, general admission was $15. And this year, tickets had soared to $30 per person. I do feel that the entertainers, vendors, and other attendants deserve to be paid, and paid well, but if tickets continue to rise, they will need to host the event at a site that is larger, with infrastructure such as actual restrooms in place. The roughin’-it feel was fine when the event was smaller, when it felt covert, when it felt like a secret. Now that this has become one of NYC’s better known summer to-dos, a place to see and be seen, attracting a wide range of people and families, perhaps its time to think about moving the event. I love, love, love Colonel’s Row for this event. I think Governors Island is pretty much the best possible venue for suspending disbelief and relaxing into a different time period for a moment. But if ticket prices continue to rise, there will be an expectation that the amenities will, as well. And while the organizers have managed to continuously expand the food service and ticket package offerings, they will need to consider the overall experience and amenities, as well.

Concerns aside, I had a wonderful time on Saturday and am hoping I’ll be able to attend again next year. I love the chance to sit on a blanket in a cloche hat, sipping a drink, listening to the band, and watching the parade of well-dressed folks wander by. And apparently, so does Bill Cunningham, who stopped by later in the afternoon on Saturday.

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Coney Island & the New Steeplechase Plaza

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Coney Island & the New Steeplechase Plaza

Sunday morning I woke up well before my alarm and knew I wouldn’t be falling back to sleep. Rather than torture myself by tossing and turning for another hour or two, I bit the bullet and got out of bed. Without any concrete plans for the day and with these few “extra” hours of time, I decided to head to Coney Island for my first visit of the season. In August. Suffice it to say, I’ve been a little preoccupied this summer.

It was early, but the train from my neighborhood takes a little over an hour. I arrived along with the early morning beach bums. I decided to take my usual route, wandering through the amusement areas towards the beach and walking the boardwalk down to the New York Aquarium. As I strolled along the weathered wooden planks of the boardwalk, I immediately noticed something: my old pal the Parachute Jump was looking pretty spiffy.

The Parachute Jump may be a Brooklyn landmark today, but it was actually built for the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair, in Queens. Two years after the fair, it was moved to Coney Island, where it continued to operate until cost and safety concerns shut it down in 1964. How does a structure like this operate as a ride? Well, it’s missing a few parts today…

This ride, to me, looks completely, totally, absolutely terrifying. I would never ride it. But, hey, I’m pretty into it as a landmark and for its historic significance.

The Parachute Jump is right up against the boardwalk near MCU Park, where the Brooklyn Cyclones minor league baseball team play. It sits a little back from the main boardwalk, and until this year, was fenced off and physically separated from the walkways. I was there in May when E finished the Brooklyn half marathon on the boardwalk, but in all the excitement I didn’t take a close look at the Jump. So imagine my surprise when I walked that way this morning and was greeted with this view:

A carousel pavilion AND all that beautiful, uninterrupted open space around the Parachute Jump? Well, I do declare!

This new area has been developed as Steeplechase Plaza, in honor of the amusement park of the same name that stood on this site. Steeplechase Park, known for the ride bearing the same name, was one of several iconic amusement parks at Coney Island that saw destructive fires in the early years of the twentieth century; when Steeplechase Park burned in 1907, its owner George Tilyou declared that he would rebuild a bigger, better park on the site, and then charged 10¢ for people to come in to see the smoldering ruins. Tilyou’s son purchased the Parachute Jump and moved it to Coney Island.

 

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Now, you can walk right up to the base and peer underneath it. There is landscaping, and some stepped seating around it. And, it also just got a brand new, very expensive set of LEDs installed on it — I’ll definitely be back before the end of the season to see the show.

The other reason for a return visit is just next door: the restored B&B Carousell (yes, that’s how it’s spelled)! The carousel was built in Coney Island, and operated there and in New Jersey between 1906 and 2005, when its owners planned to dismantle it and sell it off, horse by horse. The city purchased it and it spent five years being restored in Ohio, before returning to Coney Island and its brand new, shining, neon-encrusted pavilion right next to the Parachute Jump.

Photo by Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Photo by Todd Heisler/The New York Times

I was there too early to see it in action, but I’ll be back. I grew up near a wonderful old public carousel in Bushnell Park in Hartford, Connecticut, and so I’ve always appreciated the whimsy of a standalone amusement ride. Next to the glitz and flash of Coney Island’s attractions, the B&B Carousell won’t be quite so exciting as the lonely carousel in the park in Hartford, but I’m sure it’s just as charming. And I’m glad to see New York City welcoming a carousel back home, and adding it back onto its roster.

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All the Island’s a Fair – Fête Paradiso on Governors Island

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All the Island’s a Fair – Fête Paradiso on Governors Island

It seems sort of appropriate that most of the times I make Governors Island a destination, it’s for some kind of time-bending event – a game festival featuring a time travel agency, an 1860s baseball game, the Jazz Age Lawn Party (which I’ll be attending again next weekend! Stay tuned!). Governors Island lies between Manhattan and Brooklyn, and it feels like a place that time has passed by.

Last weekend, while my sister was visiting, we ventured out to Governors Island to check out Fête Paradiso, a traveling Parisian carnival featuring museum-quality 19th- and 20th-century amusements. That you can actually ride.

Nolan Park is a beautiful expanse of grass shaded by old, tall trees and surrounded by cheerful, bright yellow houses. A refreshment area under a large pavilion occupies the center of the space, with the amusements dispersed around it. There are attractions for kids and adults alike — more than one of the adults I saw on the high-speed dragon carousel looked like they were significantly more terrified than the kids!

There was also this carnival game, which had to be manually cranked by an operator to open and close the targets’ mouths. Having worked in an amusement park in college, I was immediately grateful that the games all operated themselves with the push of a button after watching this man struggle with levers.

One of my favorite things was this bicycle carousel, which may look familiar if you’ve seen “Midnight in Paris” (the only other one in the world was in the movie and lives at the Musée des Arts Forains in Paris). The rides were originally created to familiarize people with the mechanics of riding a bike when bicycles were first invented, and require rider participation in order to move.

The idea of getting comfortable with a new technology by playing with it is hardly novel to most of us; the best way to learn a new piece of software is to just dig in with a fun project. However, I thought that the scale and publicness of the bicycle carousel (or Velocipides) was fantastic, and delightful, and turned the fear of new technology into a shared, joyful experience.

Fête Paradiso will be running weekends in Nolan Park from 10:30 am to 6:30 pm until September 29, and it is well worth a trip out to the island on its own. There are also usually a bunch of other things going on out on Governors Island — even if the real draw for you is just basking in the sun on an open patch of grass.

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Ferries leave from Manhattan and Brooklyn, or, for $4 per ride, you can take the East River Ferry up to Long Island City, Queens (we took a beautiful sunset trip, pictured above); more information is available from the Trust for Governors Island website.

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Beautiful Bronx Gardens: Wave Hill

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Beautiful Bronx Gardens: Wave Hill

A few months ago, I made a list of New York City Things that I hadn’t gotten around to doing yet. My Brooklyn Bridge walk was on that list. Also on the list was a visit to one of New York City’s historic mansions and gardens. I’ve been to several houses that are part of the Historic Hudson Valley Estates, but was always interested in visiting one of the estates within the boundaries of New York City. On our way back from visiting family in Connecticut one Sunday, I finally got to cross that item off the list. Well, sort of.


We visited Wave Hill in the Rosedale section of the Bronx, which is actually a botanical garden and cultural center. But there’s a big house! An interesting one, too. It was rented out to a variety of cool folks, most notably Bashford Dean, half of whose very large collection of arms and armor eventually made their way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In his time at Wave Hill, he actually began a stone museum onto the mansion to house his collection, which was finished after his death. (He’s also the only person – so far! – to simultaneously hold positions at the American Museum of Natural History and the Met, which is pretty stinkin’ awesome.)

Of course, when we went, the main house was just finishing up a two-year renovation, so we couldn’t see it. BUT, we wandered through an art exhibit at Glyndor Gallery, enjoyed a variety of greenhouses, and took in the gorgeous gardens in all their late Spring glory. It was a pretty perfect afternoon.

Wave Hill is perched high above the Hudson, featuring sprawling grounds with a variety of landscaped areas to choose from. You can sit on the perfectly manicured lawn outside the main house, or traipse through leaves along a woodland trail. There is a picnic area, and when we were there I saw a few food trucks peddling their wares.

All in all, although Wave Hill may not have technically quenched my thirst to wander through a New York City mansion, it was definitely worth a trip to the Bronx. And with free admission Saturdays from 9-12, it’s probably even worth splurging on a MetroNorth ticket to make your trip north a little faster. They are also open late on Wednesday evenings in the summer for sunset-gazing – I’m sure it’s beautiful with the view over the New Jersey Palisades. For more information, check out Wave Hill’s website. And if you make it up there, keep this warning sign in mind:

Not creepy at all, Wave Hill. Nope.

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Memory and Tragedy: The Hartford Circus Fire

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Memory and Tragedy: The Hartford Circus Fire

Last Saturday marked the 69th anniversary of the Hartford Circus Fire, one of the deadliest fires in the United States. My family is from the Hartford area, and my father was supposed to attend the circus that day. Luckily, he didn’t, and he grew up to be quite the circus enthusiast. Growing up, I heard stories about the fire, but it wasn’t until I was older that I realized what an historic event it had been.

(image from HartfordHistory.net)

(image from HartfordHistory.net)

The day of the fire is also known as “the day the clowns cried.” Approximately 7000 people attended the circus on July 6, 1944, and 167-169 people died when the big top tent caught fire. Waterproofing with paraffin wax and kerosene or gasoline accelerated the destruction, and increased the deadliness of the blaze. Because a large number of tickets were given out – but not counted – in rural areas and to homeless people, no one is entirely sure how many people were in the audience, or how many died in the fire (More info here).

The circus came back to Hartford in the 1970s and visited throughout my childhood, but never again performed under a tent. Hartford has changed a lot in the 70 years since the fire. The space where the tent was set up is in the North End of the city, an area that was predominantly Irish and Jewish at the time of the fire. Since then, the construction of Interstate 84 cut this neighborhood off from downtown Hartford, and manufacturing jobs have been lost. A housing project was built on the site, but has since been torn down. The neighborhood is now home to a large West Indian/Caribbean community, many recent immigrants. This demographic change raises questions about space and memory — if the population that was affected by a tragedy such as the Hartford Circus Fire no longer lives in the area, who will remember and commemorate the events?

In 2005, the Hartford Circus Fire Memorial was erected on the site where the circus set up on July 6, 1944. Interpretive plaques tell of the events of the day, and a circular plaque and benches mark the location of the tent’s center pole. Along what was the perimeter of the tent – where many people survived by slicing open the canvas side walls to escape the heat and flames – are flowering dogwoods. It is a lovely memorial, and a quiet and reflective place.

After I graduated college, I did a stint with AmeriCorps as a literacy tutor in an elementary school in Hartford. Some of my coworkers were working in the Fred D. Wish School, which sits in front of the fire site and the current memorial. One weekend afternoon, I drove over to the school to check out the memorial. It was deserted. In fact, the whole neighborhood felt empty, despite the large number of houses and apartment buildings there. Based on that experience and the fact that many people I know in the area know little to nothing of the fire, let alone the memorial, I have to assume that the memorial is little used. The site feels too somber to use as a park (as opposed to places like Battery Park in lower Manhattan, which is chock full of memorials but used primarily as a park), but if the community around it doesn’t feel a connection to the events that are being memorialized, it’s unlikely that the memorial will find an audience. And maybe that’s okay.

It is important to note that the push for (and establishment of) a memorial to the Hartford Circus Fire took place about 60 years after the fire itself. The show that Thursday afternoon during World War II was attended mostly by women and children. Many of those kids bore the physical and emotional scars from the day for the rest of their lives. In 2004, for example, survivor Dorothy Carvey attended her first circus performance since the fire, at the age of 86. Her son, who also escaped at age 3, was already in his 60s. We tend to memorialize things as they fade from our collective memories. In the case of the Hartford Circus Fire, enough time had passed that survivors were passing away from old age, and the neighborhood had changed dramatically. It makes sense that a formal memorial would be erected at that time.

The question, though, is if it will attract visitors and help keep the memory of the event present, or if it will exist only in the background of people’s lives, as a space that is sacrosanct but not personally revered.

In any case, stories about circus fire ghosts persist at the school in front of the site. It may be hard to hold people’s attention with historical facts, but with ghosts? You can really capture the public’s imagination.

If you’d like to see some video footage from the fire:

The Hartford Public Library has also begun a scrapbooking project using people’s memories of the fire.

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We Do New York: Coney Island Cyclone

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We Do New York: Coney Island Cyclone

Saturday evening, after a day of car trouble, cleaning, and studying (for E), we got the news that our landlord wants to raise our rent for the second consecutive year. We don’t want to pay it, so that leaves us looking to move in a little over a month. We’re not very excited about this, because guess what happens in a month, exactly, from today?

E takes the bar exam.

So, Saturday evening was shaping up to be less than fun, for more reasons than our surprise rent increase. In an attempt to drown our sorrows, we headed down to the beer garden for a pitcher, but we were both sort of cranky. So we decided to be spontaneous, and hopped in the car at 11 pm to head down to Coney Island and…

…The Coney Island Cyclone.

Neither of us had ever ridden the coaster, and it seemed like just the thing to jolt us out of our sour moods. We happened upon a sympathetic security officer at the New York Aquarium who let us park there alongside the revelers at the Mermaid Ball, and we were off. Tickets are 8 bucks per person, and luckily there was no one in line so I didn’t have time to second guess my decision.

We walked onto the platform and were ushered into a car. The lap bar was pushed down so tightly I was worried I wouldn’t make it through the ride without passing out. And then? We were off.

The first drop is 85 feet tall and steep as heck at 58.1 degrees. The ride is rough in a bone-jarring way that only old wooden roller coasters can be. I was not surprised to read that someone broke 4 vertebrae on the ride in 2007.  Despite being squished in behind that incredibly tight lap bar, I still got air on some of the drops. Don’t ask me how.

After we survived our roller coaster ride (which, if you’re so inclined, you can experience virtually here), we wandered down to the beach to see the water. Coney Island isn’t exactly a picturesque beach, but it has its own charm, with the amusements behind it and the litter of days well-spent in the sand. After E got his fill of looking out at the darkened water (something that spooks me), we headed back to our car at the Aquarium, and I rolled my window down on the way home. E thought I wanted to smell the ocean, but I was really trying to ward off some lingering nausea from the roller coaster ride. Same thing, right?

In moments like that — random Saturday nights when we decide we want to conquer a landmarked roller coaster — I am so glad we live in New York City. For all its filth, and eccentricities, and tiredness, it is also a place with enormous potential for joy, maybe, once in a while, sometimes.

Okay, New York, I don’t totally hate you. You caught me.

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A Weekend Trip to the Twenties

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A Weekend Trip to the Twenties

It was our second year attending, so we knew what to expect. However, we went to the smaller, quieter, (hotter) August version last summer, so the sheer number of people, of entertainers, of vendors was a fun surprise.

The Jazz Age Lawn Party is less historical reenactment than it is a chance for New Yorkers to get a little whimsical with their wardrobe, break out the nostalgia, and picnic for hours surrounded by grass and trees and bikes and champagne cocktails.

The costumes this year were fantastic. A lot of people who made it work with modern stuff, and also a ton of vintage promenading. Fans and hats and parasols, and suspenders, suspenders, suspenders.

It’s also a chance to joke about people who we now know were in for a big economic surprise in a few years’ time — “Oh, golly, how much have YOU made in the stock market this month?!” exclaimed one of my companions dramatically. Perhaps we are using humor to address our own embarrassment and shame of our own actions (or those of people we knew) during the last boom. Or maybe people are just jerks.

More than anything, though, it was a visual spectacle to see so many people in costume, lounging on blankets, strolling among the trees, or dancing a few steps of the Charleston to the sounds of a live band. There is a feeling of safety when you are surrounded by so many people doing what can be construed as a foolish thing in one place. On the ferry over, the benches were full of a mix of people in costume and wide-eyed folks in normal clothes who had no idea what was going on. When the silly ones are the ones in the know, there’s something special happening.

We’ll see you again soon, Governors Island — possibly even for the next Jazz Age Lawn Party in August.

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An Evolution of Form: Origins of Disney Theme Parks

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An Evolution of Form: Origins of Disney Theme Parks

In this edited excerpt from my MA thesis, I wanted to explore some of the sites that eventually inspired elements of Disney theme parks. People have been going to specialized locations to spend their leisure time since the concept of work and leisure time as discrete, specialized things was created. In that regard, visitors to Disney theme parks are participants in a long tradition of having fun in designed space.

Pleasure Gardens

The great gardens designed and built in Europe were attempts to create a specialized recreational space, “a hubristic attempt to build paradise on earth, a Garden of Eden.” Featuring exuberant fountains, perfectly manicured gardens, and landscapes that were torn up and replanted based on trends and whims, the gardens were attempts to demonstrate human control over nature and provide a retreat from both the chaos of city life and the disarray of nature.

Tivoli Gardens, in Copenhagen, was one of the world’s early amusement parks.  While it featured rides and restaurants, the main attraction is the extensive landscaping throughout the park. Disney visited the gardens in 1958, and incorporated some of what he saw there into his future plans for Disneyland.

Carnivals and Boardwalks

A disappointing visit to Coney Island was supposedly one of Walt Disney’s inspirations for his eventual family vacation kingdom.  At the time he visited, likely in the late 1930s or early 1940s, Coney Island was still reeling from the effects of the Great Depression.  Subway expansion in 1920 brought large numbers of people with little spending money to the amusement area, driving prices lower and changing the atmosphere at Coney Island.  Around the turn of the century, developers had supplanted the brothels, saloons, and gambling dens that had been the economic mainstay of the Coney Island area with attractions inspired by the 1893 Columbian Exposition. Luna Park, Dreamland, and Steeplechase were all amusement parks that premiered in this period, and which featured themed villages, grand ballrooms and elaborate architecture in addition to carnival rides. The parks, particularly Luna Park, attempted to maintain a level of decency and decorum within their gates, and Luna Park owner Frederick A. Thompson required that employees be courteous to visitors at all times – a policy Walt Disney would later implement in his own parks. From the area’s revitalization at the end of the nineteenth century, the amusement area appealed to New York’s middle classes as well as its less well-off populations.  By the 1930s and 1940s, though, changed economic conditions, several devastating fires, and changes in public perception and use had brought the return of the brothels, saloons and freak shows that had been held at bay through the first decades of the twentieth century.  Still, the success and format of the parks at Coney Island led to the creation of amusement parks featuring midway attractions – in contrast to the trolley parks and pleasure gardens that had previously been in vogue – across the country.

Living History Museums

The first house museums in the United States were created to preserve the past for the edification of the public, especially those immigrant groups who had yet to be Americanized. In 1926, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and his partners began buying land and restoring structures in Williamsburg, Virginia, with the intention of preserving the roots of American democracy.  The result, Colonial Williamsburg, is a living history museum that encompasses an entire historic district, features costumed interpreters living life as though it were the late eighteenth century, and interacting with a paying public to this day.  Interestingly, Colonial Williamsburg’s mission is to educate visitors about the creation of the “idea of America,” and not the reality of America.  They traffic in ideology and heritage, rather than historical facts.

Colonial Williamsburg is only one of many living history museums to appear on the scene in the 1900s.  In this period, members of the upper class began to appropriate history and use it in attempts to Americanize new immigrants and others who did not fit their prescribed qualifications.  These early history museums’ other goal was:

… rescuing isolated bits of the old order from the juggernaut of progress.  The museums became preserves where the past, an endangered species, might be kept alive for visitors to see. . . . The museums did nothing to help visitors understand that a critical awareness of history, although not a sufficient guide to effective action in the present, was an indispensable precondition for it, and a potentially powerful tool for liberation” [of the proletariat].

While many history museums today have adopted a more critical stance towards history and historical knowledge production, the museum as an institution has generally maintained its authority over history.  In contrast, however, historical presentations at Disney theme parks do not invite visitors to engage in any critical historical thinking, and they also fail to acknowledge history’s relationship to the present.  The parks present themselves first and foremost as an amusement, and therefore absolve themselves of any responsibility to the professional discipline of history.

World’s Fairs

The International Expositions and World’s Fairs of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were vehicles for disseminating information, popularizing technological, mechanical, and scientific advancements, and providing entertainment for the throngs of people who visited them. Progress was a major theme of public display throughout the twentieth century. Late nineteenth and early twentieth century World’s Fairs focused on advancements in science and technology and ideas of a tech-centric future, to spur individualism and consumer culture while also supporting nationalist ideals. The International Exposition in 1933-34 in Chicago, for example, marked the city’s centennial, and was known as the Century of Progress Exposition. American fairs also celebrated nationalism, and many celebrated historical landmarks such as the anniversary of Columbus’ landing in North America (Chicago, 1893) or the Louisiana Purchase (St. Louis, 1904).  These ideas are also at work in Disney theme parks.

In addition to their contributions to popular paradigms of the time, the fairs often also featured midway areas with games, amusements, adult entertainment and carnival-style rides. Often staying open until late at night, these entertainment zones were sources for financial gain, but often attracted crime and other unsavory endeavors.  Their popularity, though, ensured their continued use at most fairs throughout the century.  Many of the amusements popularized on the midways of World’s Fairs would eventually be used at permanent parks around the world.

Twentieth century New York World’s Fairs.

Two World’s Fairs, both in New York, were bookends to the opening of Disneyland.

The 1939-40 and 1964-65 fairs heavily featured the concept of progress. The rhetoric of the fairs asserted that, as time passed, humans were developing greater and greater technologies that would continue to simplify life.  Humans would mine resources more effectively,cure diseases, travel with great efficiency, colonize outer space, and understand the world around them intimately.  Futurama, General Motors’ attraction at the 1939-40 World’s Fair, took riders through complex, incredibly detailed models of the future, in which automated highways snaked through rural areas and into carefully planned urban centers.  At a time when most fairgoers did not own cars and had not heard of superhighways, this attraction revolutionized the way people imagined the future.  Many of the predictions made and gadgets demonstrated within Futurama, such as cars controlled by radio signals to keep a proper distance between vehicles, have yet to be realized.  However, at the 1964-65 World’s Fair, General Motors again sponsored a pavilion, and the ride within it was called Futurama II.  It also featured a look ahead, this time to the mid-21st century, and visitors to the Fair again flocked to see it.  People were still consuming optimism for the future.  The 1964-65 World’s Fair also featured several attractions developed by WED Enterprises, now known as Walt Disney Imagineering, Disney’s theme park design firm. The main idea of these and other attractions was, as the theme song for the Disney-developed Carousel of Progress attraction for the General Electric Pavilion at the 64-65 World’s Fair asserted, “there’s a great big beautiful tomorrow shining at the end of every day.” These narratives of progress were also a part of Disney’s attractions in its theme parks.

Disney Parks

Walt Disney’s experiences with his own daughters, his desire to popularize the history he was passionate about and the opportunity he saw to capitalize on the new technology of television to market his characters and films, led to the creation of Disneyland in 1955.  After the success of Disney’s “it’s a small world,” The Magic Skyway, and The Carousel of Progress at the 1964-65 World’s Fair, the company felt confident that East Coast audiences would patronize a Disney theme park in the vicinity.  Locations were scouted in St. Louis, upstate New York, and other areas, but central Florida was ultimately chosen due to its year-round warm climate and the ability to purchase large tracts of undeveloped land.  In total, the Disney Company purchased 27,258 acres of land in secret, at a total cost of just over five million dollars, or about 185 dollars per acre.  The swampland required heavy development in order to be suitable for construction.

Today, the resort consists of four theme parks, two water parks, 23 themed hotels, and one shopping and entertainment complex. Disney-run buses, trams, monorails and boats shuttle guests through the vast network of roads, tracks and waterways that connect sites. In partnership with the Florida government, Disney has also created the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which provides emergency services, water control, public utilities, land use, and building codes, and fulfills other responsibilities for the whole of Disney’s Florida property.

What Disney built in Florida, and previously in California, revolutionized the themed entertainment industry, but it was not without precedent. The sites mentioned here are only a few of the entertainment forms that preceded the Disney theme parks, and the company owes much to them. Disney is not the end-all, be-all of leisure, either. Though it is an entertainment megalith, there are countless other ways for people to spend their vacations. Some of the places mentioned here continue on, too — I had my engagement photos taken at Coney Island last year — in forms that have evolved in differing degrees since their inception.

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An Operatic Experience

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An Operatic Experience

When I was in grad school, I stumbled upon a class called “Performing Community and Subjectivity” while looking to fill my class roster for the fall semester. Intrigued, I read on, and discovered the class was about opera, and the way that community and social change can be affected through performance. Since I was a little girl, the opera had seemed interesting in a far-off, fuzzy way. I suspect that this initially mostly had to do with the costumes I saw in books and online, and the delicious opera scene shared by Professor Bhaer and Jo March in the film adaptation of Little Women. The idea of going to an opera – of buying tickets and showing up and finding a seat and sitting through hours of performance in a foreign language – was terrifying. I am the person who will eat at the same crappy restaurant every day because she knows how to operate there rather than branch out and try other, potentially amazing restaurants nearby. So attending an opera, with all of its high-brow, fancypants history and associations, seemed sort of crazy to me.

Luckily, my professor was wonderful, and she treated the opera as a totally normal thing. And the best part of the class was that we didn’t have to buy textbooks, but instead purchased tickets to 3 operas over the course of the semester, which we attended together and discussed afterward. Knowing that I had my fellow students, many of them opera-n00bs like myself, as a crutch made all the difference. I loved the operas I saw, and found them flickering and glowing behind my closed eyelids for days after each performance.

I dragged E to the Live in HD Festival outside of the Metropolitan Opera House in the summer of 2010, and we thoroughly enjoyed sitting outside in Lincoln Center on a warm summer night and watching The Magic Flute on a big screen. For Valentine’s Day this year, we finally went to an opera together. We saw Aida, and it was a grand spectacle, with a huge chorus and horses on stage (HORSES ON STAGE) and an amazing set and costumes to die for. And the singing — oh, the singing! E was immediately hooked, and so we found ourselves back in the opera house last night, 3 weeks later, to see Don Giovanni. Another lovely performance, though not my favorite. There’s something so exciting about seeing people right there in front of you belting out these amazing songs, wearing awesome stuff, and performing works that have been around for several hundred years.

The Metropolitan Opera has a wonderful program that we have been lucky enough to take advantage of, through which they sell students tickets throughout the house for 25 dollars per ticket. The day of a performance, they sell any remaining seats to students at that rate, and for certain performances, you can buy student tickets in advance, as well. For Aida, we ended up in $320 seats in the Grand Tier, which provided a magnificent view of the stage. Last night, we sat in the Orchestra, in seats that were valued at $120, and got a different perspective on the performance. Many of the cultural organizationsin New York offer similar student discount programs, and it’s a wonderful way to get out and enjoy some of the city’s world-renowned performances without breaking the bank. If you’re no longer a student and have lost that old student ID, the Met also has a rush ticket program for $20 orchestra seats. Even if the opera seems scary, like it did to me, or boring, I suggest finding a shorter performance (some of these shows are 5 or 6 hours long, but there are plenty that are 2 or 3) that looks interesting to you, and go see it! It’s worth the investment to find out if you might love it.

And now I’m going to get out and enjoy my lunch break on this beautiful afternoon here in New York, with that triumphal march from Aida stuck in my head once again. There are worse problems to have!

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Another Weekend, Another Abandoned Train Station

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Another Weekend, Another Abandoned Train Station

Friday, I took the train up to my hometown in Connecticut, where I explored a 100 year-old train station that is only open about 8 hours a week. Amtrak still stops there, but only a few people get on and off.Rumor has it that this station will be renovated soon, and some of its magic will undoubtedly disappear, but it’s better that it be updated and in use than left as is and abandoned. I remember occasionally driving people to or from this station as a child, and watching the big trains appear around the bend and then chug off into the distance always seemed so exciting to me. It still does, really.

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