New York City, Water, and Resilience

I was never a New York native, but I did not feel entirely alien, either, when I returned for the first of four visits to the area in January 2013, following Superstorm Sandy. My father lived in Queens most of his life and left only when my mother, who was from Cleveland, insisted on moving. New York City was not to her liking, and she wanted to go home. But my paternal grandparents remained on Long Island until they died in the 1960s, and we often visited. I was born in Bayshore Hospital, one of seven that were evacuated during the storm. My father had told me about living through the “Long Island Express,” the famous 1938 hurricane that also swamped much of New England. I was not a total stranger. I was certainly aware of many of the cultural traits that make New Yorkers famous (or infamous), though I think some consist more of popular stereotype than reality. But there is a certain toughness that comes from living in the Big Apple, even if it’s different from the toughness I have learned from my eventual attachment to Chicago, the alleged “City of Big Shoulders.”

Hence, despite all the vulnerabilities connected with a city of eight million people that is nearly surrounded by water, I instinctively understood the connection of the city with the concept of resilience. The city has withstood more than Sandy—this was the site of the worst 9/11 attacks, after all—and responds well to challenges. There are no feet of clay; the foundation of Manhattan is bedrock. But any map of the city makes clear that every borough but the Bronx is an island, and even that is a peninsula surrounded by water on three sides.

What brought me to New York after Sandy was a decision by the American Planning Association to assist our New York Metro and New Jersey chapters in preparing their members and communities for the arduous task of post-disaster recovery. To be honest, ours was a contribution more of solidarity and expertise than of resources, which had to come from the massive allocations of federal funds used or distributed by federal agencies, led mostly by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). What mattered to our members was our presence, our ideas, and the time we spent preparing and delivering a series of training workshops in April 2013 on planning for post-disaster recovery. It is fair to say that, as manager of APA’s Hazards Planning Center and the ringleader of that training effort, Sandy recovery dominated my life for the first half of 2013. And this is all context for my observations in reviewing a relatively new book from Island Press, Prospects for Resilience: Insights from New York City’s Jamaica Bay, edited by Eric W. Sanderson, William D. Solecki, John R. Waldman, and Adam S. Parris. Contributors include biologists, geographers, and engineers, among others with a wide range of expertise that contributes to the book’s comprehensive approach. its utility is clearly greater for professional practitioners in planning, civil engineering, public administration, and allied fields, as well as for academic researchers, than for purely casual readers.

Map from Gateway National Park, National Park Service, website. https://www.nps.gov/gate/planyourvisit/map_jbu.htm

The book focuses specifically on Jamaica Bay, although New York City matters greatly as the municipal government making critical decisions that affect the bay’s resilience. Jamaica Bay, however, is an interesting case study of the intersection of geographic, ecological, industrial, and urban planning factors in both weakening and enhancing the overall resilience of a highly stressed water body and the urban neighborhoods that line its shores. The book’s most noteworthy feature is not any one approach to the subject of resilience for Jamaica Bay, but the way in which it seeks to cross disciplinary lines to undertake a thorough analysis of the prospects for building resilience in an area like Jamaica Bay. Researchers there may have much to share with those examining other ecologically challenged urban water bodies across the nation.

It is important to understand the geographic context of Jamaica Bay, an area familiar to most people (including many New Yorkers) primarily as the scenery below the airplane as it makes its descent into John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK). The airport, in fact, has a significant impact on Jamaica Bay because it sits at the eastern end of the bay in Queens, the linchpin between the rest of Long Island and the Rockaways, a long, densely populated peninsula that stretches west from JFK and forms the southern boundary of the bay. That, in turn, means that the Rockaways, home to 180,000 people, is extremely vulnerable in a major storm like

Fire devastated Breezy Point during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Cleanup lasted for months. Photos courtesy of James Rausse.

Sandy. The Rockaways suffered some of the worst damages from the storm, including a fire that tore through Breezy Point, destroying 130 homes. Because of its isolation at the end of the peninsula, and the storm surge that inundated it, it was impossible for fire trucks to respond to the conflagration. For those curious about the origins of a fire in the midst of a flood or hurricane, it is worth remembering that a surge of salt water can easily corrode and short out electrical wires, triggering sparks. Much of New York’s subway system, well designed to pump out normal stormwater, was shut down during Sandy for the same reason.

What makes Jamaica Bay matter enough to devote nearly 300 pages to the subject? It is a great laboratory for resilience. The dense urban development that surrounds the bay stresses the natural ecosystems of the bay, whose biological composition has changed radically over time. The late 19th century witnessed the growth of a viable fishing industry, including oyster harvests, but pollution from sewage disposal and industry brought that to a sudden halt by the 1920s. The same factors reduced the bay’s recreational potential as well. Only in the last few years have there been efforts to restore the oyster beds, but like most such efforts, they will require ongoing research and attention to succeed.

Just as importantly, human communities need to become more resilient as part of a larger social-ecological system because the city is not about to disappear. There simply will be no return to pre-urban conditions. Urban stormwater drainage, sewage disposal, industrial activity, and transportation all have impacts that good urban planning must mitigate or prevent in trying to maintain a healthy urban relationship with the natural environment. Serious scientific inquiry may provide some answers. Greater levels of awareness and connectedness by area residents to the marine environment can also help, but that has often not been the case. An entire chapter explores neighborhood and community perspectives on resilience around Jamaica Bay. Few seasoned urban experts and planners will be surprised to learn that New York generally, and the Jamaica Bay watershed, feature remarkably diverse neighborhoods in terms of density, ethnicity and race, and income level, all of which influence those perspectives and influence community goals. New York is also a remarkably complex city in which residents of some areas in Queens can feel isolated from the center city in Manhattan, but may also feel more secure in their isolation. It is noteworthy that some areas at the western end of the peninsula were heavily populated by public safety personnel. All this influences people’s perspectives on proximity to, and connection with, the waterfront and public understanding of the relationship between human settlement and the ecological health of the bay, which is not always straightforward in any event. People can exert both positive and negative influences on that relationship. The good news is that the authors found that Sandy and the recovery process that followed had some useful impact on the perceptions that underlie those actions.

Given all that complexity, it will also be small surprise that the resilience of Jamaica Bay and its surrounding development is affected by a complex network of overlapping jurisdictional responsibilities that are sometimes in conflict. In addition to the city and its boroughs, a variety of federal and state agencies with varying agendas and authorities, including the New York-New Jersey Port Authority (responsible for airports including JFK), the National Park Service (Gateway National Park), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (climate and coastal zones), overlay the influence of numerous private organizations and academic institutions. Add the flood mitigation and post-disaster recovery responsibilities of FEMA, and one is suddenly confronted with a multicolored collage that for some people can become bewildering.

The case of NOAA is interesting in that climate change is likely to affect the frequency of extreme weather events, which may further test the resilience of an already dynamic social-ecological system. As a scientific agency with significant meteorological and climatological expertise, NOAA has contributed to the array of modeling tools helping to analyze resilience in Jamaica Bay, although academic and other institutions have added to that toolbox. What is important ultimately is to bring together the various strands of research in cooperative efforts for integrative management. The good news, well described toward the end of this book, is that such cooperative efforts have produced the Science and Resilience Institute at Jamaica Bay for that purpose, with participation by decision makers from local, state, and federal agencies to help resolve those conflicting missions and adopt a comprehensive systems approach to the challenges facing the area. Let us hope that those decision makers, and the public officials controlling their resources, have the wisdom to maintain hard-won progress. As is true of many other areas in the U.S., those responsible for the health of Jamaica Bay have much work to do. The rest of us have much to learn from what they are doing and a stake in that progress.

 

Jim Schwab

Words That Move America

Chicago, a city that has spawned at least its fair share of writers and attracted many more, has spawned a national museum dedicated to people who propagate the written word. The American Writers Museum (AWM) opened May 16 at 180 N. Michigan Avenue, situated amid a dense ecosystem of museums, parks, and other cultural attractions that make living in Chicago such a stimulating experience. Let me just state the basic premise up front: If you live in Chicago, or you are visiting, and you care about or have any curiosity about literature, this is worth a visit. It is not a huge museum, at least not now, and you need not worry that it will take all day. You can spend all day, but you can get a great deal out of it in two or three hours if you wish.

Literature, in the context of AWM, does not only mean fiction or poetry. One point that was immediately obvious to me during a visit last week was that the museum takes a broad view of both “writers” and what constitutes “writing.” Communication comes in many forms, and the museum seeks to explore how those forms change in response to numerous changing conditions in American society. AWM President Carey Cranston reinforced that point with me during a brief walk-through when I arrived, before turning me loose to make my own assessments of the exhibits. Thus, in the various displays one can encounter Charles M. Schulz, the author of the “Peanuts” comic strip, which made points about life, love, and laughter just as surely as Jane Jacobs, discussing the status of urban planning in the 1960s in The Death and Life of Great American Cities and Jean Toomer in Cane, an intriguing mix of fiction techniques that shed life on African-American life in the early 20th century. Creativity is not bounded by genre. It helps define genre.

Hold that thought for a minute while I explore with you the big question that drove me to visit in the first place. It is obvious enough how some other museums dedicated to natural history (Field Museum, e.g.) or technology and science (Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, or the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.) make their subject visual and sometimes even tactile with displays of dinosaur skeletons or space capsules, accompanied by videos that help patrons relive the experience of exploring the moon. How does one take the words of poems, novels, memoirs, and other types of written expression and make them come alive in an institutional setting? After all, any library can create a display of the ten best novelists by simply stacking the books along a display counter to draw attention. As readers, we engage with these works by buying or borrowing the books and, well, reading them. So, what makes an American Writers Museum a vivid encounter with its subject matter?

One answer lies in the timeline that greets you just to the right of the front desk after you enter. Running from 1490 to the present, it is not, as Cranston noted to me, a display of the best writers America has ever seen, but instead provides an emblematic display that allows you to see the relationship of major themes in American history to the writing American authors have produced. The United States of America, an independent nation for only half of that time and a maze of Spanish, French, Dutch, Russian, and British colonies as well as native societies at various times before and since, is rich in historical themes that have inspired literary responses. The vastness of a continent new to Europeans . . . . the interaction of cultures . . . . Civil War and its aftermath . . . . the struggle for civil rights . . . . the fight for dignity and identity for American Indians . . . . immigration and the assimilation of new peoples and cultures . . . . industrialization and its impact on a formerly agrarian nation . . . . America’s emergence on the world stage. One could go on, and one could navigate the endless subthemes and nuances of each topic, which is precisely what American writers, whatever their origins and perspectives, have done for more than five centuries.

Opposite the timeline, and complementing it, is a wall with the names of prominent writers on small boards built in that one can turn for additional information. Many, though not all, feature short videos one can launch with a finger touch that illustrate important points. I played with one for Ray Bradbury, one of my own favorites dating back to high school. The video quotes part of Fahrenheit 451 while showing a pile of books being consumed by fire. Alongside Bradbury’s name is a theme, in his case, Dystopian Literature; this occurs with each writer to help show the range of genre that American literature has produced, how it has responded to both contemporary and larger issues, seeking to excite the visitor’s imagination. Whether intentional or not, it excited mine simply by introducing me to writers previously unfamiliar to me, which is saying a lot. There are American writers of whose work any of us may know little or nothing but who have the potential to stir our thoughts and prod our consciences. That has always been the mission of good writing.

Near all that is a current, periodically changing exhibit, the Meijer Exhibit Gallery, which demonstrates some of the most potent creativity the museum has on display. Its first exhibit displays the work of poet W.S. Merwin, about whom I confess I knew nothing, but who is now a source of fascination for me. The small room one enters for “Palm: All Awake in the Darkness,” features a haunting 12-minute video with no human presence except for the soft voice-over of narrators reading from Merwin’s work dealing with the complex and problematic relationship of humanity and nature. The video features the view from inside a cabin in the Maui rainforest, redolent with the sounds of birds and insects and the abundance of life beneath the forest canopy. You may stand or sit on a simple bench and contemplate this immersive adventure into the mind of a poet. Merwin, now 89, has produced more than 50 volumes of poetry, according to the brochure that complements the exhibit, which discusses writer Gregory Bateson’s concept of an “ecology of ideas,” the network of impressions and perspectives that form our conscious and subconscious minds. Since the late 1970s, Merwin has lived in Hawaii on an old pineapple plantation he has restored to its natural state.

As a Lutheran, I found one other thing haunting. Merwin is a practicing Buddhist, and the brochure contains a typewritten, hand-edited draft of a poem called “Place.” It begins:

On the last day of the world

I would want to plant a tree

Curiously, for years, I have known that Martin Luther is reputed to have said, “If I knew the world would end tomorrow, I would plant a tree.” The 500th anniversary of the Reformation is upon us, and I know these two men came from very different places to express the same thought. But if a 16th-century religious reformer and a 20tt-century Buddhist poet can reach the same conclusion about the resilience of our commitment to the earth and the stubbornness of faith, perhaps there is hope for us all, after all.

AWM will be sponsoring events in a modest meeting room that features another challenging exhibit, “The Mind of a Writer,” which explores the connections between writer and audience. Professional writers clearly cannot earn a living without an audience, and the practical questions are both how to define and shape that audience and how to reach that audience. The “reach” forces us to explore the role of technology and institutions in facilitating those connections, which clearly have evolved over time. Displays make us think about the evolution of the book shop, starting with the Moravian Book Shop, launched in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in 1745, largely to import religious publications, but continuing into such modern innovations as Oprah’s Book Club, using the medium of television to connect viewers with writers; bookstore chains such as the now defunct Borders; and Amazon, allowing people to order books through the Internet. Of course, writers have also used periodicals, which in their heyday relied very much on the efficiency of the U.S. Postal Service, as well as other media. Playwrights do not expect people to read their writing, but to hear it on stage. Screenwriters reach people through televised performances of their scripts, and so on. All of that got me wondering whether AWM missed a beat by not discussing the Internet not only as a mechanism for selling printed works but as a medium in itself for digital publishing. After all, the very premise of my visit was to review the museum not in print but online, by blogging. Maybe I missed it, but where was the discussion of blogging as one of the most modern innovations in audience creation? Anyone out there? Judging from the list of subscribers on my admin site, it would seem there are thousands. In the aggregate, probably hundreds of millions. It’s a brave new world. But I suspect it may not be long before AWM addresses this phenomenon.

Just beyond this area is a section where you can sit at an old-fashioned typewriter and play. The staff each day places sheets of paper in a tray with the opening lines or fragments of famous quotes. Your job: start pecking away to fill in the blanks with your own thoughts about how the quote should end. For writers like me who are almost preternaturally oriented to the computer screen, it is slightly disconcerting to hit keys that sometimes skip, but the experience is indisputably tactile, though arguably less so than perhaps using a quill pen. In any event, there is a wall with clips. You are invited to hang up your work when you are done. I did not get around to asking what the staff does with these at the end of each day. Maybe you should ask when you visit.

I hope you are more dexterously agile than I appear to be with one other exhibit that allows you to move any of a number of drifting images across a screen for a surprise exploration of an individual writer’s work. One of several lines of inquiry allows you to hear a short oral reading, but I had trouble triggering that feature because my index finger seemed not to hit the precise part of that line that activated the recording, at least not on the first try. I found myself a little frustrated, but a generation that has become adept at using its thumbs to tap out smartphone messages may be more adept in this respect. I was never very skilled with video games, either. We all have our limitations.

There are other features, including one on Jack Kerouac that includes the “scroll manuscript” he pasted together for On the Road, and a room on Chicago writers, since the museum lives here. I am sure there will be more in the future. The museum leaders appear to have built out their infrastructure of sponsors and board members, and if you’d like to know more, you can visit the website. That is not my mission here. As an active American writer, I hope I’m offering you reasons to visit the museum itself.

 

Jim Schwab

Beyond Tradition and Empire

Image

The Republic of Botswana, a paragon of progress in today’s Africa, did not start life with any apparent advantages. In fact, the former British protectorate of Bechuanaland, which became independent Botswana, appeared in the 1950s to have bleak prospects, in no small part because of archaic British colonial policy. Nearly surrounded in the post-World War II period by South Africa, which was in the process of establishing its notorious apartheid policy, the colonial backwater of South-West Africa that later became independent Namibia, and the white-run Rhodesia that morphed into modern Zimbabwe, Bechuanaland was a sparsely populated land of desert and scrub that seemed fated to be swallowed by more powerful neighbors. Yet today it is both one of the most prosperous of African nations and a functioning democracy, although like any nation it has its flaws and shortcomings. But it has maintained an uninterrupted series of democratic elections since independence, a claim few African nations can make.

Seretse Khama. Image from Wikipedia

Seretse Khama. Image from Wikipedia

A curious and stunning piece of personal history lies behind the story of Botswana’s independence, which occurred in 1966. The heir to the chieftainship of the Batswana people, the nation’s predominant ethnic group, was in London in the years after World War II to study law while his uncle ruled the nation as a regent. The British had established their protectorate in 1885 after King Khama III had appealed to them in the face of rising threats from South Africa and other neighbors. With a population at the time of little more than 100,000 (now 2 million), Botswana would have been helpless in the face of invasion. Moreover, Botswana had mineral resources, including diamonds, that made the country a potentially attractive target. In the midst of all this, Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), heir to the throne of this fragile country, managed to fall in love with an English working woman, Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), a typist.

A United Kingdom, a movie based on the book Colour Bar by Susan Williams, tells the story that followed from this unlikely romantic adventure. It is a little difficult at first to fathom exactly how these two become so strongly attracted to each other, but the story is based on real life, so we know they did. It’s just that it would be nice if the movie did a somewhat better job of making clear how that happened. It is clear enough that in post-war England, prejudice against black Africans remained widespread. Knowing this makes it important to better understand how Ruth Williams found the courage to face down family disapproval and societal racism to decide that, when Khama proposed to her on a London bridge, she was prepared both to move to a poor rural African nation and to assume the role of an African queen.

The disapproval occurred on both sides. Khama’s uncle, Tshekedi Khama, wanted him to divorce Willliams, and failing that, wanted to send him into exile to spare the country division over the issue. Khama refused to do either and insisted, against the advice of the British officials, most notably Alastair Canning (Jack Davenport), the condescending British liaison to Bechuanaland, that the case be presented to an assembly of the people, then all male. (It should be noted that Canning never existed. In the film he is a fictitious composite of various British colonial officials.) But in this format, we can already see the seeds of modern democracy in Batswana culture, an open forum in which people could hear and judge for themselves. Following the uncle’s denunciation of the marriage, Khama passionately makes his own case for remaining both king and the husband of his English mate, and after some tense moments of thought, the men side with him. Uncle Tshekedi moves on to form a new settlement where they no longer need to live together.

But then the machinations begin. British diplomats, worried about South African ambitions and opposition to interracial marriage, work behind the scenes to oust Khama anyway. Khama turns out to be no one’s fool; he notices that mining explorers are on Batswana land without permission and quietly enlists a British journalist to investigate, and it becomes clear that his nation may both be resource-rich and the target of those who would exploit it before Khama can assert the nation’s right to control those resources, which ultimately turn out to be diamonds. Meanwhile, the British are using the dispute between uncle and nephew to manipulate the situation for their own geopolitical advantage.

The story that follows shows both the workings of democratic dissent in the United Kingdom (the movie title is clearly a play on that name with reference to Botswana) and the dishonest nature of imperialism. Labor Prime Minister Clement Attlee seems bent on catering to South African wishes despite opposition within his own party. British officials lure Khama to Britain to negotiate a settlement, then ban him from returning for five years. Amid all this, the king and his wife must endure the burden of prolonged separation while she is pregnant and gives birth in Bechuanaland to their first child, a daughter. We watch her convictions and commitment grow as she blends in with the people she comes to love despite the skepticism many first felt about her.

Back in England, meanwhile, Winston Churchill, in a bid to return to power as prime minister, promises publicly to return the young king to his throne. Once his Conservatives regain a narrow majority in Parliament, however, he reverses course and declares a lifetime exile for Khama. Despite widespread adulation of his role in the fight against Hitler, there was a dark side to Churchill that wanted to cling to the glory of the declining British Empire. Increasingly desperate both to reunite with his wife and to save his country from these designs, Khama finally manages to get permission to return for one week to meet with his uncle and settle family affairs. Khama uses that opportunity brilliantly by convincing his uncle of the need for national unity. Overcoming the weight of tradition, they agree to forsake the traditional monarchy and seek independence with free elections, upending the British ban on Khama’s rule and setting the stage for eventual separation from the UK within the Commonwealth. In due course, by 1966 Khama was elected the first president but honored democratic principles and set the stage for a much better history than most other African nations have experienced. Moreover, the nation has largely lifted itself out of poverty, with average annual income rising from about $70 per year to nearly $20,000 today. A Texas-sized nation in southern Africa, two-thirds of which is Kalahari desert, has grown a substantial middle class and educated its citizens. Somewhere, there is a moral in this story. It strikes me that the moral centers on courage and leadership and vision, which are often in short supply in this world.

And all that means this movie deserves more attention than it will likely get, but I’d like to hope that it will get that attention anyway. It is a powerful antidote to much of what we still see happening in the world today. It reminds us that one can stand for dignity in politics and make change accordingly. And while you’re watching A United Kingdom, enjoy the dramatic South African scenery, the lively romantic plot, and the brilliant acting. It is a movie, after all.

 

Jim Schwab

Think Globally, Adapt Locally

In times of political hostility to scientific truth, knowledgeable people sometimes wonder how we can progress without federal support for important initiatives such as adaptation to climate change. The answer, in a vibrant democracy, is that the truth often bubbles up from the bottom instead of being disseminated from the top. When the top is dysfunctional, as it currently seems to be, it is the creativity of local officials and their communities that often saves America from itself. For me, part of the joy of a career in urban planning has been watching and sometimes abetting the great local experiments that pave the way for an eventual federal and international response to pressing urban and environmental problems. The struggle to adapt successfully to climate change is one of those urgent problems. We may indeed confront a wave of scientific ignorance among some leaders in the Trump administration for a few years, but they should be aware that they cannot halt the wave of innovation as communities work to solve real problems.

Denying that humans have contributed significantly to climate change through the Industrial Revolution and transportation driven by fossil fuel consumption will do nothing to stop sea level rise, nor will it prevent the bifurcation of extreme weather events that flattens the bell curve with fewer normal events and more high-precipitation storms and prolonged drought, which sometimes also feeds a longer and more intense wildfire season. Disasters happen, and the numbers don’t lie.

UNISDRAs a result, I was very happy a couple of years ago to be invited to join a Project Advisory Committee for the Kresge Foundation, which had hired Abt Associates to produce a report on climate adaptation at the community level. The foundation has supported a good deal of work related to community resilience and social equity in addition to making serious investments in the resuscitation of Detroit as a functioning urban community. Kresge wants to know what makes communities tick in responding to resilience challenges like climate change, and the study by Abt was intended to establish a sort of baseline for understanding the best practices in local planning related to climate adaptation.

I was thus involved in a series of all-day or multiday meetings of 16 project advisors from around the United States who reviewed and commented on the progress of the study for the consultants. Our meetings involved some serious debates about what constituted climate adaptation and resilience, and the degree to which communities needed to use such labels for what they were doing, or conversely, the degree to which we needed to recognize what they were doing as climate adaptation. Sometimes, we learned, adaptation may quack like a duck without being called a duck by local citizens and officials. What matters is what is accomplished.

Climate Adaptation: The State of Practice in U.S. Communities was officially released by Kresge Foundation in December; I will confess to being a little late in sharing the news, but at the time I was trying to recover from pneumonia. It took me a while longer to find time to read the report in its 260-page entirety, but I thought it important to do so to report intelligently on the final product. There is a difference between reviewing case studies in bits and pieces before committee meetings and seeing the full report between two covers.

I am happy to tell you that I think the nine authors who contributed to the report hit a home run. The bulk of its wisdom lies in 17 case studies spread across the nation, including some surprising places like Cleveland, Ohio, and the Southwestern Crown of Montana. I applaud Abt Associates for its work in even identifying many places that may not have been on the standard maps of leadership in climate resilience. Some of that can be attributed to maintaining an open mind about what they were looking for and what constituted innovation and success in adaptation. One thing that is utterly clear is that no two communities are the same, nor do they face the same problems. Ours is a very diverse country in spite of all that binds us together. Ours is also a nation of creative citizens who confront local problems based on local circumstances rather than “one size fits all” solutions. Perhaps that is why support from Washington does not always matter as much as we think, except in the international arena, where it is critical.

The example of Cleveland may be enlightening in this regard. While issues of social equity may not always seem like a logical starting point for engagement on climate adaptation, Cleveland is a city that was utterly battered by economic change from the 1970s into the early 21st century. The result is a community that is noticeably IMG_0256less prosperous than its surrounding metropolitan area, and has some of the lowest socioeconomic rankings among major cities nationwide. It is also a city that has lost more than half of its 1950s population, which peaked around 900,000. It is a city that may well say, in evaluating its place on the prosperity scale, “Thank God for Detroit.” That also means that no discussion of climate adaptation will move forward without a solid anchor in efforts to confront these inequities because it is hard to imagine how a community can become resilient in the face of climate challenges without also rebuilding economic opportunity for a badly battered working class. I know. I may have decamped for Iowa in 1979, but I grew up in the Cleveland area and worked my way through college in a chemical plant. Rebuilding prosperity in Cleveland has been tough sledding.

By the same token, climate change has had a direct impact on Montana, and the Southwestern Crown, a rural area of mountains and forests, has suffered the loss of timber industry jobs, which has in much of the Pacific Northwest resulted in some bitterness toward environmentalists. At the same time, nature takes a serious toll in increased wildfire damage, and at some point, if people of different perspectives can sit down for some serious discussions of reality, they can also imagine new futures for a region at risk. That has been the job of the Southwestern Crown Collaborative.

Pike Street MarketMentioning every case study here would not make sense. But it is worth noting that communities generally seen as not only prosperous but on the cutting edge of the new high-tech economy, such as Seattle, face other challenges that nonetheless tax local resources and resourcefulness. Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) became another Kresge case study, in large part, it seems, because its management needed to find ways to bring its staff and customers into the difficult realm of defining the threat and deciding how it could best be handled. SPU is responsible for managing Seattle’s water supply. When one confronts a future that portends potential water shortages as a result of decreased winter snow pack, leading to reduced snow melt that combined with drought can leave a huge metropolitan area high and dry, the need to recalibrate the system can be daunting. This case study is not important for providing precise answers to such questions, for there are none. Instead, it emphasizes the challenge of accustoming utility engineers and managers to an uncertain future, and helping them find comfort levels with uncertainty. What needs to change to make Seattle’s water supply resilient in the face of natural hazards? How does a city on Puget Sound cope with sea level rise? What plans will be adequate for protecting water supplies two or three decades into the future? In the end, the answers revolve around changing the culture of decision making within the organization as well as communicating those challenges clearly to the public. One product of SPU’s efforts, however, is a path forward for other communities facing similar long-term challenges.

Bottom line: This report is a great resource for those who want to descend from the heights of overarching theory on climate change to the realities of confronting the problem on the ground. Use this link, download it, and read it. Few resources in recent years have been so thorough in documenting the state of practice in climate adaptation at the local level. I am proud to have been involved even in an advisory capacity. I have learned a great deal from the process.

Jim Schwab

 

Climate Change as a Security Threat

It was the end of yet another trip to Washington, D.C. I generally find myself in the nation’s capital between three to five times per year, all depending on project needs, meeting invitations, and other factors mostly relevant to my work for the American Planning Association. I don’t even remember now which trip it was or what I was doing, just that when it was all over, I found my way as usual to Reagan National Airport to fly home. It was early evening, and I had left enough time for dinner at Legal Sea Foods, one of my favorite restaurants. They just happen to have an outlet in the main hall before you go through security into one of the concourses.

I was sitting at the bar, an easy place to have a good seafood dinner alone with a beer, but soon found myself next to another gentleman. Being a compulsive extrovert at heart, I introduced myself, and we were soon engaged in a conversation about what we both did. I explained my work on planning for natural hazards and learned that he was a career Navy officer. Relating to my obvious interest in coastal hazards, he informed me that he had worked on some Pacific island bases and had taken note over time of the rise in sea level that posed long-term problems for those naval facilities. I was already well aware the Department of Defense has been paying close attention to climate change as a possible source of concern for national security, in part but not solely because of its impact on military facilities and capabilities.

The conversation eventually drifted to the politics of climate change and the disconnect between many Republican conservatives’ skepticism about climate science and the more objective and cautious position of the Defense Department. He observed, as I recall, that he preferred science to ideology and then delivered his unintended punch line: “I used to be a Republican, but they’re making a Democrat out of me.” I chuckled with him, and the conversation continued.

As I thought about it later, however, I considered it sad if he felt forced to abandon his Republican roots. It may sound attractive to most Democrats to attract such a man to their ranks, but I also think it is important that some voice for climate sanity and allegiance to scientific evidence retain its voice in the Republican party. It will be a bad day for this nation when such people feel there is no room for their voice in Republican circles because it is already sad enough that climate change is viewed by many as a matter of ideology instead of scientific inquiry. There is also no question, skeptics aside, that the evidence overwhelmingly indicates human influences on a changing climate and a need to prepare for effective adaptation to changes already underway and largely inevitable.

I mention all this as a way of introducing readers to a briefing book for the change in administrations, prepared before it was clear who would become the next president. The Climate and Security Advisory Group (CSAG), chaired by the Center for Climate and Security in partnership with George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, produced the briefing book and released it in September. CSAG consists of a number of energy and climate experts in addition to numerous prominent retired military officers and officials.

Numerous such briefing books will find their way to the transition team for incoming President-elect Donald Trump’s administration. Exactly which get read and when, and how many cabinet choices may be made before that happens, is anyone’s guess. A cynical or doubtful view can be had by considering both Trump’s past comments to the effect that climate change is a hoax and the views of some of the people surrounding him. A more positive view may be gleaned from the fact that his views on many such topics seem less than solid. It also remains to be seen how serious he may be about reading briefing books, given a reputed lack of interest in reading, but it is hard to imagine how long any president can avoid confronting the briefing materials that will come his way. The fact that the advice is coming from military experts may weigh more heavily than warnings from environmentalists or even scientists. Right now, it is just hard to know. Trump is almost surely one of the least predictable incoming presidents of modern times. But if he were ultimately to take climate science seriously—admittedly a big if—his administration could almost become transformative on the issue by bringing many of his supporters with him.

As for the briefing book, “Recommended Policies and Practices for Addressing the Security Risks of a Changing Climate,” it is worth understanding its purposes, and what it does and does not do. It is not itself a scientific document. Instead, it is a consensus-based set of recommendations from the many people listed as advisors. It details specific actions the incoming administration is advised to take in areas of defense, foreign policy, homeland security, intelligence, and energy, often urging that positions responsible for monitoring and counseling on actions to address climate change be elevated to a higher status in their respective agencies and in the White House.

For example, one area that receives repeated attention throughout the document is a melting Arctic Ocean, which introduces a number of national security questions ranging from the opening of a previously frozen seaway to oceangoing traffic to issues related to the extraction of natural resources from its fragile environment. These are no small issues and demand urgent attention. A sobering but fascinating view of those changes was offered five years ago by geographer Laurence C. Smith of the University of California-Los Angeles, in The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization’s Northern Future.

The briefing book also takes the approach, already widely under consideration in the Pentagon, that climate change can potentially spawn serious international conflicts over scarce resources as a result of drought, extreme precipitation, and sea level rise, which are already inducing migration from affected areas. The ultimate question for the new Trump administration may be whether it is worth the price to the nation to ignore such potential sources of national and international instability. In the meantime, it is incumbent upon those with an intimate understanding of these issues to continue to advocate the truth as they know it—because climate change will not cease simply because some people refuse to believe in it. Climate change is not a matter of faith. It should be treated as a matter of scientific evidence and investigation.

Jim Schwab

Subdivide and Conquer the Flood

Photo by Chad Berginnis. Used with permission.

Photo by Chad Berginnis. Used with permission.

Floods generally result from regional storm systems producing intense precipitation, from fast melting of winter snows, and occasionally from the failure of protective infrastructure such as dams and levees, often as a result of pressure from such events. We tend to think of the resulting flood damages as the inevitable consequences of these events, but they are not. Flood damages are the result of development decisions that place the built environment—and humans—in harm’s way. Most of those decisions, at least in the U.S., are made at the local level. In city halls and in planning commission and city council meetings across the nation, we have met the enemy of flood hazard reduction. It is usually us.

Tucked away from most public attention, the little decisions a community makes in approving new subdivisions are among those with the biggest influence in exacerbating or minimizing flood hazards to residential development. Cities, towns, and counties often assume that, if they simply comply with the fundamental requirements of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), they are home free. But the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which runs the program, while it can establish minimum requirements for local participation in the program, will never be in a position to substitute for local judgment on flood risk. There are too many important decisions that local government alone can make that FEMA cannot.

Less well understood by many is that there are significant practical limitations to the capabilities of the NFIP. NFIP regulations apply to mapped floodplains, but mapping floodplains for insurance rating purposes costs money, and that means higher priorities for mapping urbanized and developed areas where flood insurance will be sold. With more than 3.5 million miles of coast and river and stream frontage in the U.S., the NFIP has mapped about 1.2 million miles for Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMs). Much of the rest is in rural and undeveloped areas, along smaller tributaries, such as streams and creeks, where development has yet to occur. Subdivision, of course, is a process of dividing and developing plots of land precisely where development has not yet happened. The possibility of a new subdivision proposal including land with unmapped floodplains is a constant reality. The stream corridors involved may seem small, but when flooding occurs they can often pose serious problems. Moreover, their floodplains may well expand as a result of the creation of new impervious surface in small watersheds—that is, hard surfaces such as building footprints, driveways, and roads. These impacts expand the floodplain because such hard surfaces do not absorb stormwater, unlike open space with trees and grass, thus increasing the volume of storm runoff.

pas-report-584-cover-revised

Cover of report reprinted with permission from APA.

To address these sorts of issues, the American Planning Association in 2014 FEMA to fund the production of a report for planners that has just been released: Subdivision Design and Flood Hazard Areas (Planning Advisory Service Report 584). It actually builds on prior work by APA two decades ago in a similar report, Subdivision Design in Flood Hazard Areas; both are being made available online as free PDF downloads and companion documents. The new report, however, goes far in bringing the subject forward and addressing contemporary realities, including the need to get ahead of climate change by anticipating potentially more extreme events and, in coastal areas, sea level rise. To amplify the outreach of the report, APA is scheduling its next Planning Information Exchange webinar in early December to address this topic.

The panel will include California attorney Tyler Berding, of the Walnut Creek law firm Berding & Weil, which has specialized in working with homeowner associations and developed an acute awareness of the problems raised when these associations inherit responsibilities for funding and maintaining flood protection infrastructure such as levees and small dams. As Berding notes, developers often sell local planners and elected officials on the idea that such arrangements, approved during plat reviews, free the municipality or county of the burden of such infrastructure. The problem arises many years later, when it becomes clear that these volunteer-managed organizations lack the expertise and also suffer from predictable downward pressure from property owners on maintenance fees, resulting in steadily deteriorating flood infrastructure that can result in disaster. Also on the panel will be Chad Berginnis, executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers and a major contributor to the report, for which I served as general editor, and Jerry Brems, now a retired planning director of Licking County, Ohio, who lent his experience in advising the project, who has dealt with these issues. I will moderate.

Photo by Chad Berginnis. Used with permission.

Photo by Chad Berginnis. Used with permission.

The overall point of the report is to highlight the fact that there is typically much more a local government can do to exercise vigilance in this respect than typically happens. The report outlines a number of standards communities can adopt with regard to the protection of natural and man-made features on a subdivision site, the layout and design of the site, its infrastructure, platting requirements, and watershed management. It also discusses how all this can be integrated effectively into the larger planning process of the jurisdiction. For instance, it discusses and provides a case study on the use of conservation subdivision design, which allows the clustering of structures on a site to locate them on higher, safer ground while maintaining more vulnerable, low-lying sections in common open space, which in turn allows the creation of such amenities as riverside walking paths, habitat protection for wildlife, and preservation of forested buffer areas along stream corridors. These and many other steps help reduce flood losses while creating a more resilient, safer, and environmentally sustainable community.

In short, the entire project invites communities to explore ways to become more forward-looking and creative in their approaches to flood hazards. The world is improved more often incrementally than radically. We hope we’ve brought planners’ and public officials’ attention to one more such increment.

 

Jim Schwab

Misusing the Populist Label?

Long ago, in a graduate urban planning course at the University of Iowa called “Collective Decision Making,” I had an interesting exchange of views with Professor Mickey Lauria, now at Clemson University. We are both much older than we were in 1982, so it might be interesting to reignite our brief debate over coffee or beer, but it was a friendly, if slightly testy, intellectual debate that has taken on some new meaning for me in the context of our current presidential race. Much of what I am seeing serves to reinforce my original beliefs, but it might just as easily serve to reinforce his as well. I just don’t know. What I do know is that, in objecting to the press describing Donald Trump’s rhetoric as populist, President Barack Obama seemed to land firmly on my side of the debate. I was pleased.

As I recall, and I am relying on an excellent but certainly not perfect memory, our classroom debate occurred in the midst of a discussion about some issue regarding the politics of public housing or low-income housing development in Minneapolis, where Prof. Lauria had acquired a Ph.D. in geography just five years earlier. Most of the details of the immediate issue are now obscure, but I recall that he made some reference to populism in a way that suggested it merely meant catering to popular sentiment, which, of course, can easily be turned against disadvantaged populations on issues like adequate housing. I objected by saying, “That just means anything goes.”

Mickey turned to me with a face that suggested some disbelief, even some cynicism, and replied forcefully, “Anything always has gone, Schwab.”

I insisted, in the face of his adamant response, that populism had some clear historical origins that rose above such a broad indictment, and that it was not as simple as catering to popular prejudice. I discovered that not everyone in the class was enamored of his take on the question, though I am sure I did not win all the endorsements that day, either. Mostly, I just deserved credit for offering and articulating another perspective.

It was a classic confrontation on the question of just how the word “populist” is used. Populism has certainly been denigrated by certain political scientists like Richard Hofstadter, author of The Paranoid Style in American Politics, and Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. And, heaven knows, American history has been full of such sentiments, which have gained and lost ground over time. Some of it is fed by nativist, anti-immigrant sentiments, but some also is fed by resentment of privileged elites, who sometimes can be blamed for stoking such resentment with their own brands of arrogance and condescension. Coming from a working-class family yet striving for higher education and intellectual achievements, believe me, I can see both sides of the debate. I can see both the grievances of many working-class people as well as the futility of the frequent search for easy answers that can dominate their thinking. And while the targets of resentment may vary among blacks, whites, Hispanics, and others, the temptation to latch on to easy answers is omnipresent in one form or another. It is often difficult for people to take time to think more deeply and to perceive that the world can be a very complex place.

But I have never seen that as an excuse for intellectuals to see populist politics as inherently naïve or to paint it with the broad brush of the ignorance of the unwashed. In the end, in my opinion, such attitudes about what constitutes populism concede far too much to the demagogues and manipulators among us because they then wear the populist label with honor when some of them clearly deserve opprobrium.

What Mickey Lauria almost surely did not appreciate, aside from my own undergraduate education in political science, was that I had specifically done my homework on the origins of populism as a political concept in American history. Part of this was due to my move to Iowa as executive director of the small but feisty Iowa Public Interest Research Group and connecting with the politics of agricultural protest during the emergence of the 1980s farm credit crisis. That subject eventually became the focus of my first book, Raising Less Corn and More Hell, for which I subsequently did a great deal more historical research over the next few years. But one book that had captured my attention was highly recommended by another urban planning faculty member at the time, Michael F. Sheehan, who later obtained a law degree to supplement his Ph.D. in economics, and then moved to Oregon as an environmental and public interest lawyer.

Democratic Promise: The Populist Movement in America, by Lawrence Goodwyn, had been a game changer for me in shaping my awareness of the role of protest politics in American history. It outlined the growth of the admittedly short-lived People’s Party in the 1880s and 1890s but led to the title of my first book, which came from a quote from Mary Elizabeth Lease, a Kansas populist politician of the time, who consistently told farmers that they needed to “raise less corn and more hell.” The populists essentially took over the state of Kansas in the early 1890s, a far cry from the Tea Party Republicanism that dominates there now. But their moment in the sun was relatively short. The party actually won electoral votes, largely in the West, in the 1892 presidential election, but the growing threat it posed also prompted Democratic leaders like William Jennings Bryan to engineer its absorption into the Democratic Party, where its voice became less distinctive. It articulated legitimated grievances against the industrial elite of its day, such as the railroad barons, but also worked in many instances across racial lines. It may be worth noting that similar grievances during the Great Depression prompted the emergence of the Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota, which elected one governor, but which also was eventually absorbed into the Democratic Party after World War II in part at the urging of Hubert Humphrey.

The tragedy is that some of its leaders, like Lease, a suffragist who broke with the populists, became anti-Semitic, and suffered from self-importance, and Tom Watson of Georgia, who later descended into racist diatribes, succumbed to the enormous pressures to conform to the prejudices of the day, taking the easier route to public acceptance after the collapse of their third-party effort. But it must be said that others helped form the core of the emerging Socialist Party under the leadership of Eugene Debs. Others helped minimize elitist tendencies in the progressive movement by keeping its focus on issues of economic justice for the working class, exemplified later in the Wisconsin initiatives of Robert LaFollette.

There is no question that much of this poses problematic history and that its implications are subject to debate. But I also think that populism at least presented an articulate alternative for a large segment of public opinion that felt oppressed by powerful forces emerging in the post-Civil War American economy. I would also ask what movement for social justice has ever failed to experience its growing pains, including often severe backlash from the powerful interests representing the status quo. Think of the suffragettes, the civil rights movement, and gay rights. The big difference with populism was that it once threatened the status quo not just with demonstrations but with viable candidates for elected office. No wonder the powers of the day reacted so vehemently.

That leaves the question of what has become of the populist label. Is it now whatever we decide it means whenever someone like Donald Trump can rouse large audiences to an angry froth by scapegoating minorities, immigrants, and women who do not conform to his expectations? If so, we had best be careful about the mantle we are allowing such leaders to wear and what they will do with it, for it will then take on authoritarian and fascist dimensions. On the other hand, if we insist, as President Obama did, that there must be a strong element of actually positively representing and fighting for the interests of working people, we can deny Trump and his ilk a hero’s label they have not earned. Demonstrably, Sen. Bernie Sanders has made a clearer case for building an honest populist movement in this century, whatever the shortcomings of his campaign, which did far better than most people ever expected, most likely including Sanders himself, who seems in any case to prefer the label “democratic socialist.” Curiously, that self-description seems not to be hurting him politically, although most politicians would have run from that label in panic.

Many have argued that both Sanders and Trump mounted populist campaigns. I would argue that both tapped into a palpable anger at the nation’s current political leadership, but that, while one is opening old wounds, another is trying to heal them. One is focused largely on himself; the other is actually building a movement for social change.

As I did in 1982, I still argue that the way we use the populist label has serious political implications, and that using it loosely and thoughtlessly may have dangerous consequences for our national political dialogue. The news media, in particular, need to rethink this one. Unfortunately, many reporters have only a cursory knowledge of history.

 

Jim Schwab

Knowing Much about History

 

Cover ImageCover ImageI may be one of the few non-historians to have read at least one biography of every

George Washington

George Washington

U.S. President from George Washington through Barack Obama. The fact that I earned a B.A. in Political Science at Cleveland State University way back in 1973 may make my quest seem a little less oddball, but my effort to tackle such a mission in chronological order did not begin until 1997. It was aided at times by serving as a biography judge for the Society of Midland Authors book awards for several years, which resulted in my receiving copies of presidential biographies at times, but mostly those supplemented reading I had already done.

And what did I achieve? Something I suspect many voters lack—a long-term, in-depth perspective on how the office has evolved and what has allowed a relatively few men so far to succeed in the job. It is now historically possible that a few women may succeed (or fail), with gender, like race and religion, rapidly falling by the wayside as an obstacle on the road to the White House. I, for one, am happy to see the nation expand its pool of viable candidates beyond the white guys, however capable some of them might be. Judging from this year’s race, our nation needs all the help it can get.

Harry Truman

Harry Truman

It took me 17 years in spare time—amid child rearing and professional travel and responsibilities and life’s many diversions—and a lot of reading to reach my goal. My list includes several behemoths between 500 and 1,000 pages, the longest of which was David McCullough’s Truman (just shy of four figures). Some were far easier reading than others, not so much because they were intellectually lighter fare, but just because they were better written. McCullough is one of the true masters of biography; not every author is. Some presidents have attracted the interest of the best; others have been memorialized by more mediocre authors. It is all in the nature of the business.

So what if I could at least offer a shortcut for those still trying to get some broad perspectives on the presidency in the midst of one of the most puzzling and unpredictable races in decades? Bill Yenne, a veteran nonfiction author, has offered just that recently in The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents, an illustrated compendium of summaries, ranging from two (Chester Arthur) to fourteen pages (Franklin Roosevelt), of the lives and presidencies of those 43 men who have served

Grover Cleveland

Grover Cleveland

as our 44 presidents since the adoption of the U.S. Constitution. (If you haven’t heard already, Grover Cleveland is the one president who served two nonconsecutive terms and is thus counted twice. He is actually the subject of a very good biography, An Honest President, by H. Paul Jeffers).

With the background outlined above, I can judge pretty accurately, and Yenne’s summary presentations for the most part do a very good job of capturing the highlights of each presidency and the big issues each man faced. Illustrated, it includes sidebar sketches of each First Lady and vice-president, as well as the candidates each president defeated on his way to the White House. It is fun reading. Occasional copy editing errors or wrong dates mar the overall effect for an ersatz perfectionist like me, though many people might not notice, and these errata are few and far between. That said, the book could easily serve as a handy reference point for people curious about past presidents in a year when the future seems so uncertain. It could even make a very good birthday present if you know someone who was born during primary season, or before November, and who cares about U.S. history.

Who knows, get hooked on this one, and you might decide to go deeper like me. Before you know it, you’ll be a presidential history junkie. Worse things could happen to you. Trust me.

(All images courtesy of Zenith Press.)

Jim Schwab

Salute to Studs

 

Studs Terkel, Nelson Algren, Mike Royko, and a "woman friend no one has identified. Photo provided by Richard Bales, given to him by Algren's "first bibliographer."

Studs Terkel, Nelson Algren, Mike Royko, and a “woman friend no one has identified.” Photo provided by Richard Bales, given to him by Algren’s first bibliographer, Ken McCollum.

I’ve been holding on to this piece for a week. It’s not that I wrote it and then sat on it, but that I am writing it now based on an A&E feature I encountered in the Chicago Tribune last Sunday. I didn’t actually finish reading the article until today. My real reason for delay is that I spent the week going to work, participating in seven job interviews for a new position at APA, trying to finish work on a manuscript, all while slipping not so quietly into a diagnosis by Friday of acute bronchitis. In short, at the end of each day I had no energy to write anything. So thank the antibiotics and the inhaler. I’m on the mend, but still less than robust and vigorous. But I can get this done.

The article, “Studs forever,” by Rick Kogan, a long-time WGN radio host and journalistic observer of the cultural scene, tells the story of a remarkable and worthy effort by a team of relatively young archivists led by Tony Macaluso at WFMT-FM, which long hosted the Studs Terkel Show, to digitize some 5,600 recorded radio shows that Studs Terkel left the Chicago History Museum after his death in 2008, at age 96, after decades on the air on WFMT-FM in Chicago. Terkel led an amazing life, leading an early television show in the 1950s, hosting his hour-long interviews on a daily basis, and producing 18 books, mostly of oral history, but also some remarkably literate commentary on music, the arts, and other topics. In 1985, he won a Pulitzer Prize for The Good War, his oral history of World War II. He was both an activist and a Renaissance man. When he wasn’t busy with all that, he appeared in the occasional movie, such as Eight Men Out, the dramatization of the 1919 Chicago Black Sox World Series scandal. Studs’s intellect covered the waterfront.

The article notes that only 400 of those hours of tapes are digitized so far. You can find them at www.studsterkel.org, and more will be coming, but additional resources are needed for such a gargantuan task. What is being saved for public consumption is a treasure trove of insights solicited by Terkel, in his unique interviewing style, from some of the leading lights of his time: Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Bob Dylan, Jacques Cousteau, Cesar Chavez, James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks, Mike Royko (one of his closest friends), Bill McKibben, and who knows how many others prominent in their day. The interviews are more than just routine; they are the probings of a very curious, passionate mind, drawing the best from his subjects. They are lively elucidations of topics that remain vital: the role of art in the modern world, civil rights, free speech, racial justice, and the environment.

I say all this because I feel I owe Studs Terkel a great deal myself. He shaped how I saw my job as a writer and interviewer—not that I ever matched his skill and prolific nature—just that I learned.

Sometime in early 1984, maybe late 1983, I’m not sure, I showed up in the office of my adviser for the Journalism master’s program at the University of Iowa, John Erickson, to discuss my master’s project. At the time, I was the only person in the entire university with the oddball aim of getting two master’s degrees simultaneously in Journalism and Urban and Regional Planning, both of which were completed in 1985. The Midwest farm credit crisis was beginning to manifest itself substantially by then, and I told Professor Erickson that I wanted to produce and publish an oral history of the farm crisis. Erickson, aware unlike me that no one in the program’s history had yet turned a master’s project into a published book, never batted an eye. He suggested some resources on oral history and interviewing techniques and encouraged me to get to work. Lacking Amazon in those days, I visited Prairie Lights Books and placed a special order for the recommended reading, which showed up about two weeks later. And I got busy.

Along the way, I discovered this trailblazer in oral history named Studs Terkel and began reading his books: Working; Hard Times; and Division Street: America. I could not put them down. They remain classics, in my opinion, part of the American literary canon. And I learned both the value of asking the right questions in an interview and the art of shaping that interview into an engaging piece of literature. Aided by that inspiration, I turned that master’s degree into a book: Raising Less Corn and More Hell: Midwestern Farmers Speak Out (University of Illinois Press). But that was not until 1988, three years after I left Iowa, after Erickson and others on the comps committee told me my first 140 pages were enough, you’re graduated, do the rest later, and after my planning background helped me turn much of the same material plus other research into a consulting study for the Iowa General Assembly. But that is another story, involving another professor, John Fuller, in the School of Urban and Regional Planning, who was then employing me as a graduate research assistant. It was also in the course of my travels in conducting dozens of interviews that I met my future wife, Jean, in Omaha.

Image from Wikimedia (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Studs_Terkel_-_1979-1.jpg) By New photo (ebay) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

That would be enough to give Studs an honored place in my memories, but after my second book (Deeper Shades of Green: The Rise of Blue Collar and Minority Environmentalism, Sierra Club Books, 1994) was released, he invited me onto his show. In view of the unquestionable prominence of so many other Studs Terkel guests, this was for me a huge honor. When someone with his track record and guest list, such as it was by 1995, brings you to his radio show, someone like me, a minor author at the time, is likely to feel this is a golden opportunity. And it was.

Studs, I learned, would not take me or my book any less seriously than any of his other guests. I was part of numerous radio and television interviews about both books, so I know how most interviewers work, and Studs was nothing like them. My book sat there alongside him, well thumbed, with post-it notes hanging from numerous pages, making clear he had read it thoroughly and knew what he wanted to ask. No one needed to give him cues; he had marked it up, backwards and forwards. I was impressed. I felt I had joined his pantheon, worthy or not. I responded in kind. I don’t know; I may have been good or I may have been mediocre. It’s twenty years ago now. But I was there.

About two years later, I began a two-year stint as the president of the Society of Midland Authors, of which Studs Terkel was long a member (as is Rick Kogan). SMA was another group that had honored him for his contributions. The radio show was ultimately not the only time I met him, but certainly the most important occasion.

So now I realize the scope of the legacy of which I became for one day an infinitesimal part, but one treated that day by Studs as just as important as every other guest, because that was his way. On the way out of the studio, he insisted on giving me an autographed copy of Race. He was as genial as they come, a great human being—with that probing mind that seemed to know no limits. This is one archive that deserves to live on.

It will take a while to complete the museum’s project, which benefited initially from a $60,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, but will probably need more before it is done. Kogan notes that you can also find videos at www.mediaburn.org.

 

Jim Schwab

Steel and Modern America

DSCF3007Let’s cut to the chase. If you have a relative on your gift list who loves the nooks and crannies of history, particularly those less well-known details behind the reality of the modern world, may I offer a suggestion? This suggestion emanates in part from the simple fact that I am a lover of history, an avid scholar of the factors that have influenced the shape and size of modern American cities—I am, after all, an urban planner—and the fact that I simply love good writing. I am, after all, also a trained professional journalist. Steel, a wonderful book by Brooke C. Stoddard, a veteran writer and former editor at Time/Life and National Geographic Books, has the kind of grand scope and vision that can fascinate the reader in your family who has an endless curiosity about the world.

Or maybe that person is you. In that case I am either helping you figure out what to ask someone else to give you, or you can just go get it. And while I think e-books are wonderful, this is one case where I highly recommend getting the hardcover, in part so that you can sit back with that tactile feel of a real book in your hands and admire the copious color illustrations that accompany some splendid writing. Stoddard is a marvelous story-teller, but the photographs do the text more than ample justice.

Steel production was part of my own background growing up in suburban Cleveland. My father was a truck mechanic in a chemical factory, and I spent three summers there working my way through college. Chemical production fed other industries, including steel, in numerous ways. Antimony, for instance, is used in electroplating, which bonds paint to the steel frames of cars, and Cleveland grew on both steel and auto manufacturing, and there was a powerful symbiosis between all of them in an industrial ecosystem that employed tens of thousands. Steel was at the core of the growth of many Midwestern and eastern cities from Baltimore to Pittsburgh to Cleveland to Chicago. My story is at most tangential, but I learned what rough work it could all be. I even broke an ankle that first summer before starting college when the dome of an antimony kiln tipped over and trapped my leg. Such places were not necessarily for the faint of heart. I recovered, of course, and learned.

But learning from such immediacy to industry and taking in the grand sweep of its growth over time are two very different things. Writing industrial history can also be a labor of love, the financial rewards from book sales not always seeming to equal the toil involved in assembling detailed stories spanning centuries. I have read a few of these books in the past: for example, Uncommon Grounds by Mark Pendergrast, about the coffee industry, also a fine book. These are really stories to some extent about the evolution of human society in modern times, and how particular products changed our cities and whole nations. But few are as central to who we are today, and what our cities have become, than the steel industry. In more ways than almost any other industry, steel has been the game changer of human history.

And like most, it started from small things that turned into larger things that eventually turned into huge things. Stoddard takes us all the way back to the Stone Age and the descent from space of iron meteorites to explain the origins of the human relationship with the element that is the basis of steel before engagingly slow-walking us through human discoveries of the various alloys and their relative strengths and advantages for both peaceful and military uses over the first few millennia of human civilization. Empires like that of the Hittites grew, for example, on the advantage of iron over bronze, and of better ways of making steel instead of cast or wrought iron. The Romans gained iron works in Iberia from the Carthaginians and then added the refinement of tempering to improve the quality of the metals they used. Just as in modern times, military success was often fed by industrial success, which also meant that a nation of inventors gained huge advantages over its neighbors and competitors. And that’s all in the first chapter.

Stoddard’s second chapter pulls us into the industrial age, starting with British refinements in the use of coal to improve steel alloys, which depend on the right proportion of carbon to harden the iron in steel to produce the metals we rely upon today. German industrialists added their own refinements, but American steel makers like Andrew Carnegie burst onto the scene in the late 1800s to create enormous gains in the scale of production, coupled with the ready access of iron ore discovered in the Iron Range of northern Minnesota. In a matter of decades, the United States moved into a steelmaking category that dwarfed all others. It is, as most know, a history of ruthless men, but also of the uniquely philanthropic aspirations of a few like Carnegie. Labor and industry were often locked in mortal combat. For all his hard-bitten ambition, Stoddard notes, the U.S. could have done far worse than to have its industry transformed by a man who ultimately gave away more than 90 percent of his wealth to support charities like community libraries and concert halls rather than creating one massive family dynasty.

Here I must veer off on a small tangent. Carnegie helped nurture the career of a protégé named Charles Schwab, who first helped engineer the sale of Carnegie’s business to form the dominant U.S. Steel Corp., and later became the president of the competing Bethlehem Steel, which built the huge Sparrow Works in Baltimore. More than a quarter-century younger than Carnegie, Schwab, who functioned into the 1920s, was far more prone to flaunt his wealth, building a huge mansion in Manhattan that he later found nearly impossible to sell during hard times. Stoddard reveals that Schwab, despite his German ancestry, made a fortune providing steel for submarines and other military purposes to the United Kingdom in World War I well before American entry into the war, even at times when the official American position was neutrality. One favorite tactic was to ship the parts to Canada, where they could easily be assembled into submarines before being transferred to the British Navy.

My father, born in 1917 during that war and coming of age in the 1930s, tried after Pearl Harbor to join the U.S. armed forces, but was rejected for medical reasons. It turned out he suffered from appendicitis, which was remedied through surgery by a civilian doctor, and he spent the war years in New York City working in the steel mills.

His name was Charles Schwab. He used to joke that some people who did not know him thought that perhaps he was a close relative of the big guy and was learning the business from the bottom up. Nothing could have been farther from the truth. He was simply another blue-collar working stiff. He did have a rich uncle who sold uniforms to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, but that is another story, one that never benefited him directly. Curiously, that was not his only brush with fame, for later in life he had to contend with Charles Schwab the broker. Well into retirement, tired of taking phone calls from misguided investors, he and my mother put the household phone in her name, and the errant calls ceased to find him. He was not related to that Charles Schwab, either. But when asked, I can at least say with a straight face that Charles Schwab was my father.

But back to the book. Without drilling down into all the magnificent details that Stoddard provides, the second part paints a portrait of what makes the steel industry function as a whole, starting with vivid descriptions of the iron ore barges that sail the Great Lakes, some of which are larger than the Titanic and the Queen Mary, yet get far less attention because they do not cross the oceans. After visiting the Iron Range, he boards one of those freighters in Superior, Wisconsin, and stays aboard across Lake Superior, the volatile lake whose nasty storm in 1975 swallowed the Edmund Fitzgerald, the subject of a doleful hit folk song a year later by Gordon Lightfoot. He stays with the crew as they transit Lake Huron and Lake Erie to Cleveland, where they finally unload their cargo of thousands of tons of iron ore pellets. Along the way, we learn about the modern amenities aboard such ships, and the challenges both they and their crews face, including fitting such huge vessels through narrow locks between the lakes or braving lake effect storms. It is a world few of us imagine or even try to think about. But it is a world that makes our world possible. Without steel, we have no modern skyscrapers creating the skyline of cities like New York and Chicago. Without steel, many of our modern appliances and conveniences simply are not possible. Without steel, our cities look like very different places. Just take a look at photos and drawings of American and European cities in the mid-19th century. Just imagine building railroads and mass transit without steel.

And so the book presses on—I won’t ruin the anticipation, except to say that eventually, as he must, Stoddard leads us to the decline of the monsters of steel on the American industrial scene, due more to lack of innovation than lack of resources. Former giants of urban steel making disappeared from older industrial cities like Pittsburgh and Cleveland. Other, more nimble, firms like Arcelor Mittal have moved to the forefront in recent decades, and Stoddard tells us why in a closing chapter titled, “Exeunt the American Gods.” The changes that have been wrought in our major cities are not for the faint of heart. Once again, in the cycle of history, steel manufacturing has changed, and the old days will not return. But steel will continue to change our lives.

Steel: From Mine to Mill, the Metal that Made America. Brooke C. Stoddard. Zenith Press. 304 pp.

 

Jim Schwab