Emotions Flow Through Places

Root Shock

Root Shock by Mindy Fullilove, M.D.

It will surprise no one that I read a couple of baseball books and watched several games while on vacation.  But it may surprise you to know that the best piece of writing I read which included baseball as its subject came from the opening pages of psychiatrist Mindy Fullilove’s 2004 book Root Shock:  How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do About ItShe begins chapter one with several powerful paragraphs.  I’m going to quote extensively from those two pages.

“Every once in a while, in a particular location and at a particular time, people spin the wheel of routine, and they make magic.  One such location was Ebbets Field in the heart of Brooklyn, where, through World War I, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, World War II, and the postwar struggles for equality in America, hard-working people enjoyed baseball.  That small, unpredictable, and intimate ballpark was a gallery for characters to strut their stuff, and the characters in the stands took as much advantage of the opportunity as did the characters on the field.  It was there that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, and there that ‘Shorty’s Sym-Phony Band’ tortured the opposition.  Words like ‘raucous’ and ‘zany’ are invoked to help those of us who were never present imagine the intensity, and the uniqueness of what went on.

In 1957, Walter O’Malley, the owner of the Dodgers, moved them to Los Angeles.  The horror of that act is undiminished in the voices of the fans. ‘I felt like a jilted lover,’ recalls a sixty-year-old physician of the catastrophe that darkened his young life.  Forty-six years after the Dodgers played their last game there, it remains important to people to tell the story of Ebbets Fields and in particular, to try to take us into its magic.  This is the real essence of ‘nostalgia,’ an emotion that is in one second bitter and in another sweet, as the remembrance vacillates between the joy of what was and the grief of the loss.  Enduring sorrow and untampered anger are hallmarks of the stories related by fans of the Brooklyn Dodgers. ‘I never rooted for them again,’ says my doctor friend, and he is not alone in the implacable anger that still seems the only reasonable response to that kind of pain.

Three years after the Dodgers left, Ebbets Field was destroyed, and apartment buildings were erected on the site.  People have to get the address and specific directions to find the small plaque that is all that remains of the cathedral of baseball which once stood there.  And so the team is gone, the fans dispersed, the stadium demolished.  Of deeper importance for people who had lots of work and not much hope, a place of magic was ripped from their daily lives, leaving them dull and gray.  The loss of Ebbets Field was a tragedy that could not be repaired: it changed Brooklyn forever.

But how could the loss of a baseball stadium undermine what would be the fourth largest city in the United States (were Brooklyn independent of New York City)?

The answer to this conundrum lies in understanding that places—buildings, neighborhoods, cities, nations—are not simply bricks and mortar that provide us shelter.  Because we dance in a ballroom, have a parade in a street, make love in a bedroom, and prepare a feast in a kitchen, each of these places becomes imbued with sounds, smells, noises, and feelings of those moments and how we lived them.  When we enter an old classroom, the smell of chalk on the boards can bring back a swarm of memories of classmates and lessons, boredom and dreams.  Walking toward a favorite bar awakens expectations of friends and drinks, good times, good food.  The breeze on a certain hillside reminds us of a class trip, while the sun in the garden brings thoughts of Dad.  Try to find the shortcut you use to take to your best friend’s house and it is your feet that will carry you there.  The cues from place dive under conscious thought and awakens our sinews and bones, where days of our lives have been recorded.

Buildings and neighborhoods and nations are insinuated into us by life; we are not, as we like to think, independent of them.  We are more like Siamese twins, conjoined to the locations of our daily life, such that our emotions flow through places, just as blood flows through two interdependent people.  We can indeed separate from our places, but it is an operation that is best done with care.  When a part is ripped away, as happened in Brooklyn when the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, root shock (the traumatic stress reaction to the destruction of all or part of one’s emotional ecosystem) occurs.”

Ebbets Field

Ebbets Field (photo credit: A Slice of Brooklyn)

People and places are intertwined.  It is why, when discussing preservation’s future, so many people we spoke with over the past two years focused on the stories attached to places and less on the intricate architectural details of the buildings.  In these six paragraphs, Dr. Fullilove captures that connection in an eloquent and personal way. I began my preservation career in August of 1977, and coming out of a vacation four decades later I’m still excited to have the opportunity to help people see, understand, and honor the places that awaken our “sinews and bones, where the days of our lives have been recorded.”

Have a great week.

More to come…

DJB

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu

Virtually every reviewer of this 2016 work about the race to save some of the world’s most precious ancient manuscripts calls out the “unfortunate” or “inappropriate” title. And they are right.

But then, in the comments section, reader after reader says something to the effect of “I wouldn’t have read this book (or your review) except for the title.” And they are right.

 

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu

“The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu” by Joshua Hammer

So there you have it.  Don’t let the title turn you off of this marvelous little book.  But also, don’t go into the work thinking that the librarians of Timbuktu are a modern-day version of Indiana Jones.  The tale is good enough on its own, but I suspect the author (and his publishers) thought that “The Very Persistent and Dedicated Librarians of Timbuktu” simply wasn’t going to set books flying off the shelf.

Joshua Hammer, a former bureau chief for Newsweek who now serves as contributing editor to Smithsonian, is a talented writer who combines a strong journalism sense, travel writing sensibilities, a grasp of the culture and disputes of a far-away section of the world, and a story-teller’s skill.  Over the years he has covered Mali in general and Timbuktu in particular from the perspectives of political journalist and travel writer, and those perspectives led him to this particular story while visiting the area on other assignments.

This is a true story that shows the swings in Mali, over the centuries, between an open, inclusive, and intellectually  curious Islam and a fundamentalist strain that tries to eradicate the area of all vestiges of this history to take the country back to a dark age of repression.  The enlightenment of the scholars and savants of Timbuktu, who created some of the world’s most amazing manuscripts about all manner of topics as seen through an Islamic and Arabic prism, is contrasted with the terrorism that comes from the fundamentalists.  That terror was seen most recently through the takeover of the city and much of the country by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).  Throw in some French colonial history, a separatist movement that has been in place for centuries, and the recent French response to put down AQIM, and you have all the makings of disaster for the hundreds of thousands of manuscripts that have been hidden by collectors in and around Timbuktu through the centuries.

The hero of the story is Abdel Kader Haidara, who as a young archivist in the 1980s began to track down tens of thousands of ancient Islamic and secular manuscripts across the sub-Sahara desert and along the Niger River. He is successful in convincing families to give up their manuscripts so they can be cared for in professional facilities in Timbuktu.  Hammer makes the long intellectual and cultural history of this fascinating city come to life as Haidara goes about his work.

The story shifts into high tension mode when AQIM arrives on the scene around 2011 and begins to threaten the stability (such as it is) and openness of Mali.  The now middle-aged and successful Haidara realizes—with some reluctance—that he must orchestrate the movement of more than 350,000 manuscripts out of Timbuktu without AQIM discovering his mission.  I won’t give away the story, but suffice it to say that he succeeds by calling on every contact he has both locally and internationally, and by putting together an analog response in a digital age.  In the end there are many heroes to this wonderful story.

There is much to recommend this book, but one of the best comments came from Scott Anderson, who wrote the important Lawrence in Arabia work that I highlighted several years ago.  Anderson’s take on The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu rings true to me when he said,  “Hammer has pulled off the truly remarkable here—a book that is both important and a delight to read….A superb rendering of a story that needs to be told.”

There is also an unexplored story here about the corrosive and damaging impacts of fundamentalism, no matter the religious tradition, but that’s another post.  So for now, take it from the son and brother of librarians:  Joshua Hammer’s new book (bass-ass librarians and all) is recommended.

More to come…

DJB

A Fine Week

BaseballBabe Ruth — when asked in 1930 why he made more money than President Herbert Hoover — replied, “But I had a better year than Hoover.”

I had a fine last week in July.  Much better than Donald Trump’s week, I hasten to add.

What made my week so special?  I went to two games at Nats Park, where the Nationals lost both games and looked pretty sleepy while doing so

But…

  1. The weather was clear and cool, with highs around 80 degrees and a light breeze adding to the perfect atmosphere.
  2. Ryan Zimmerman — in the midst of a monster comeback year — hit a home run on Tuesday night that gave him the lead for most career home runs by anyone playing for a Washington franchise.  (He passed Frank “Hondo” Howard for the honor.)
  3. Any day at the ballpark beats a day without a game.

And…

Family time at Nats Park

Family week at Nationals Park – first with Andrew on Tuesday and then with Claire the following Sunday

…oh yeah, Andrew and Claire each joined me for a game at the old yard.  With Claire in Washington for a month before heading back to graduate school, everyone has been around the house and we had the chance to catch a couple of games on the recent home stand.

One of the wonderful things I seem to have done as a dad is to have raised a couple of baseball fans.  This was Andrew’s fifth game of the season – four at Nats Park and one with Claire at Dodger Stadium in LA.  Claire just moved to Oakland, and what do you suppose she did for her first night in her new city?  Yep, went with a new roommate to see the A’s (a significant downgrade from the Dodgers, I must admit).  However, it was “Bark at the Park” night, so she got to see fans bring their dogs to the stadium and catch an A’s win.

Both took selfies after we found our seats in section 313, and soon I was all over Facebook.  Andrew was in a discussion with a mutual friend who was asking him to define “biggest” in his post about being at the game with the family’s biggest fan.  (Not funny.)  Claire posted that there was no one she would rather be at a game with…and then added that it didn’t have anything to do with the fact that I’d buy her beer.

Here I am on vacation, living the dream.  Any better way to spend three hours or so than with your son and/or daughter at the ballpark.  (That’s a trick question.) No!

Hope you get time to catch a few innings, savor a half smoke (all the way), and down an I.P.A. or two this summer with someone you love.

Play ball!

More to come…

DJB