Saturday, November 15, 2014
On the Early Years of Television: When television made its debut at the 1939 World's Fair in New York City (NYC), nobody understood what its ultimate impact o society might be. Such a dilemma had already been playing out with the radio, which came into existence during the 1920s. Would this new piece of communications technology be used for crass commercialism (in the form of advertisements & entertainment) or cultural uplift (in the form of information dissemination)? This question was central to the early historical development of television. And two shows in particular helped steer television (in the U.S.) toward a mixture of both entertainment and cultural uplift. First, I Love Lucy, which ran on CBS from 1951-57, followed the trials and tribulations of a rambunctious NYC housewife Lucy Ricardo, as she tried to break the daily monotony of household activities. Second, The Honeymooners, which ran on CBS from 1955-56, followed the lives of a crude NYC bus driver Ralph Kramden (who later became the inspiration for Fred Flintstone) and his witty wife Alice. Because each show existed mostly before the days of cable, their analog appeal reached nationwide. Ultimately, however, both shows were social commentaries about the nature of (white) American family and social class structure in the post-World War II era.
Saturday, November 1, 2014
On Early American Landscape Architecture: In the 1850s, American architects began to consider the importance of landscape design in urban planning. Cities like Boston and New York were becoming overcrowded due to the influx of European immigrants (mostly Irish). These cities needed more housing (tenements), more infrastructure (sewers), more streets, and more open spaces. Textile, shoe, and steel factories had begun to dominate urban landscapes, and thus, make city life rather uncomfortable. Often deemed the "father" of American landscape architecture, Andrew Jackson Downing was originally drawn to the design and construction of homes. He believed that people's moral dispositions were firmly tied to their living circumstances. But from his work on home design, he started to understand the significance of landscaping. And until his death in 1852 from a steamboat explosion on the Hudson River, he was considered the front-runner for designing New York's Central Park. That duty later fell to Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., who in 1858, won a design competition to expand Downing's plans. As a committed egalitarian idealist, Olmsted concluded that every New Yorker should have equal access to the park. Such an idea was quite radical in the 1850s, especially since some urban parks had been reserved for private functions in certain neighborhoods (e.g. - New York's Gramercy Park).
Wednesday, October 15, 2014
On the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition: Four-hundred and one years after Christopher Columbus landed in the Bahamas (and "discovered" the Americas), the city of Chicago hosted a World's Fair. It was to be bigger and better than any previous World's Fair, as its planners particularly sought to outdo the Paris EXPO of 1889 (where the Eiffel Tower had been unveiled). Despite the onset of a serious financial panic in 1893, the Fair's planners spared no expense to show off Chicago's greatness. Only two decades since the city's Great Fire of 1871, the Fair represented a grand opportunity to exhibit how the rebuilding process had made Chicago ultra-modern, especially in terms of railways, roadways, and skyscrapers. Some of the Fair's highlights included the world's first Ferris Wheel, one of the world's first steam locomotives (the John Bull), and numerous Beaux-Arts/neoclassical buildings which required around 120,000 incandescent lamps to light up at night. Pragmatist philosopher William James remarked that everybody who visited the Fair "grew religious," while socialist politician Eugene V. Debs believed the Fair had a "healthy effect" on American workers at the time. By the time the Fair closed in October, it was drawing more than 150,000 visitors/day. With such high daily attendance figures, the total number of visitors eventually surpassed 25 million.
Wednesday, October 1, 2014
On Frank Rizzo's Philadelphia: As mayor of Philadelphia for most of the 1970s, Francis "Frank" Rizzo left an indelible mark on the city's history. Whether it was his rocky relationship with the local African-American community or the attempted voter recall during his second term, Rizzo certainly proved to be a controversial figure. Yet prior to his mayoral career, he served as Philly's police commissioner in the late 1960s. And it was Rizzo's tenure as police commissioner that offered the clearest hints as to how he would govern as mayor. For example, in a city where one-third of the residents identified as African American, Rizzo increased the number of black police officers to mimic Philly's demographics. Although the department's number of black officers only made it to 2 in 10, it was still above the national average for big city police forces at the time. Regarding police tactics, Rizzo was one of the first commissioners to require his officers to patrol in pairs. And in neighborhoods where ethnoracial tensions ran high, he often paired officers with different ethnoracial backgrounds. Despite these unique initiatives, however, Rizzo's tenure was marred by an August 1970 police raid on the Black Panther's headquarters. Even though he did not directly authorize the raid, Rizzo placed great trust in his officers to employ heavy-handed tactics when detaining suspects and gathering evidence.
Monday, September 15, 2014
On American Romanticism and Washington Irving: As a literary genre that emerged in the early 19th century, American Romanticism consisted of writers who often transposed historical events into fictitious contexts. Two of the genre's earliest pioneers included James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving. While both authors' origins can be traced to New York state, it was Irving who based more of his publications in the surrounding geography of his hometown (Tarrytown, NY). In just two years (1819 & 1820), Irving published perhaps two of the most popular short stories in American Romantic literature: "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." For the story of "Rip Van Winkle," Irving adopted the literary technique of flash-forwarding through time. As a Dutch colonial settler in the Hudson Valley, Van Winkle fell asleep after drinking moonshine in the Catskill Mountains. He woke up decades later only to discover that the American Revolution had occurred and that New York had become part of a new, independent nation. And as for "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," Irving developed a fantastical tale of ghosts, ghouls, and haunts, in a post-Revolutionary War town along the Hudson River. The most memorable of which was the Headless Horseman, who notoriously terrorized the story's protagonist (Ichabod Crane) in a climatic chase.