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How to Dig Into the History of Your City, Town, or Neighborhood

11 Jun
A Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Lincoln, Nebraska, from 1903.

A Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Lincoln, Nebraska, from 1903. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

During the past few months of lockdown, I’ve been taking daily walks around my Brooklyn neighborhood. As I’ve strolled the same streets week after week, I’ve started paying attention to buildings in a way I never had before. My roommate and I turned this into a sort of historical scavenger hunt. Each of us takes photos or writes down addresses during our separate constitutionals, and back at home we look up the history of the buildings. We’ve learned that a luxury condo building was previously a 19th-century home for “respectable aged and indigent females,” that a stately brick house was the mansion of a wealthy piano manufacturer, and that, between the 1880s and World War II, our neighborhood was a thriving shoe manufacturing district.

Wherever you live, the built environment tells stories. During this period of limited movement, uncovering those stories can help you feel a sense of discovery, even in your immediate surroundings, even among the very familiar. “Every community has value, and one of the ways you can realize it is to start looking, and analyzing, and thinking about it,” says Gabrielle Esperdy, a professor of architecture and design at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, and the editor of SAH Archipedia, a digital encyclopedia of more than 20,000 American buildings.

So begins Lauren Vespoli’s fine essay on doing local history. You may read the entire Atlas Obscura piece here.

Covid-19 takes its toll among the Navajo

13 May

Northwest Iowa Center for Regional Studies

TUBA CITY, Arizona (AP) — The virus arrived on the reservation in early March, when late winter winds were still blowing off the mesas and temperatures at dawn were often barely above freezing.

It was carried in from Tucson, doctors say, by a man who had been to a basketball tournament and then made the long drive back to a small town in the Navajo highlands. There, believers were preparing to gather in a small, metal-walled church with a battered white bell and crucifixes on the window.

On a dirt road at the edge of the town, a hand-painted sign with red letters points the way: “Chilchinbeto Church of the Nazarene.”

From that church, COVID-19 took hold on the Navajo Nation, hopscotching across families and clans and churches and towns, and leaving the reservation with some of the highest infection rates in the U.S.

So begins this AP story on…

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The Black Death in Venice and the Dawn of Quarantine

13 May
An aerial view of the lagoon of Venice.

An aerial view of the lagoon of Venice. DIDIER DESCOUENS / CC BY-SA 4.0

JUST BEYOND THE SHORES OF Venice proper—a city that comprises dozens of islands—lie two uninhabited isles with a rich history. Today these landmasses are landscapes of grasses, trees, and worn stone buildings. But once they were among the most important gateways to this storied trading city.

The islands, known as Lazzaretto Vecchio and Lazzaretto Nuovo, are now yielding fascinating insights into Venice’s response to one of the most famous pandemics in history. In the mid-14th century, Venice was struck by the bubonic plague, part of an outbreak known as the Black Death that may have killed up to 25 million people, or one-third of the population, in Europe. This spread was just one of several waves of the plague to strike Northern Italy in the centuries that followed.

Venice, as a trading center, was especially vulnerable. “They saw that the only solution was to separate people, to take away the sick people, or suspected sick people,” says Francesca Malagnini, of the University for Foreigners, Perugia, who is herself a Venetian, linguist, and member of an interdisciplinary team researching Lazzaretto Nuovo. “This was the only way to protect everyone’s health and allow the economy to continue.”

So begins an Atlas Obscura reprint of a fascinating article by Sara Toth Stub on Venice and the origins of quarantine in Europe in the 14th century. You may read the entire article here.

The Early Master Plans for National Parks Are Almost as Beautiful as the Parks Themselves

18 Nov

Northwest Iowa Center for Regional Studies

The 1939 Master Plan for Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

In the beginning, there was Yellowstone: more than 2,000,000 acres of mountains, fields, forests, geysers, and rivers, a place of such commanding beauty that, according to an early account describing the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, “language is entirely inadequate to convey a just conception of the awful grandeur and sublimity of this masterpiece of nature’s handiwork.”

So begins Anika Burgess’s Atlas Obscura story on National Park planning documents. You may read her entire post here.

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The 1918 Parade That Spread Death in Philadelphia

14 Nov

Northwest Iowa Center for Regional Studies

A Red Cross nurse wearing a face mask, c. 1918

The influenza pandemic of 1918-19 killed between 50 and 100 million people around the world, more than died in the battles of World War I. In the United States, the hardest-hit city was Philadelphia, where the spread of the disease was spurred by what was meant to be a joyous event: a parade.

So begins Allison C. Meier’s JSTOR Daily post about Philadelphia’s influenza disaster in 1918. You may read the entire post, with links, here.

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Who Speaks for Crazy Horse?

16 Sep

Northwest Iowa Center for Regional Studies

Past Mt. Rushmore is another mountain, and another memorial. This one is much larger: the Presidents’ heads, if they were stacked one on top of the other, would reach a little more than halfway up it. After seventy-one years of work, it is far from finished. All that has emerged from Thunderhead Mountain is an enormous face—a man of stone, surveying the world before him with a slight frown and a furrowed brow.

So writes Brooke Jarvis in his astute report on the Crazy Horse Memorial in the Black Hills. You may read the entire New Yorker piece here.

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Place, Societies, and The City of God

29 Jul

Northwest Iowa Center for Regional Studies

IMG_1842

“What our societies desperately need, therefore, are common objects of love that bind us together but inhibit our tendencies to idolatry.”

“The beauty and promise of place lies in its capacity to turn our eyes away from ourselves and our imagined images of ourselves to the reality of the world and the contingency of our place within it. The love of place is inherently modest, and therein lies its promise.”

So argues Australian theologian Andrew Errington at ABC Religion and Ethics. You may read his entire lecture here.

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The Wild West Meets the Southern Border

4 Jun

Northwest Iowa Center for Regional Studies

Tombstone’s reënactors re-create a peculiar and selective representation of the past. Photograph by Chris Verene for The New Yorker

Shakespeare is in New Mexico. Tombstone, in Arizona. Both are old mining towns near the U.S.-Mexico border. They came into existence in the eighteen-seventies, during the silver strike, but soon suffered the same fate as most of the other mining towns in the region: boom, depression, abandonment, and then a strange kind of afterlife.

Some years ago, I spent a summer in the Southwest with my then husband, our daughter, and my two stepsons, and we visited both places. It was 2014, the immigration crisis was very much in the news—unaccompanied children from Central America were arriving at the border in unprecedented numbers, seeking asylum—and I was beginning to do research on the situation. My husband and I were obsessively meeting deadlines, and the kids were getting impatient with us, feeling…

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The Pacific Northwest is the American religious future

3 Jun

Northwest Iowa Center for Regional Studies

People crowd the University of Washington quad to view cherry blossoms in Seattle in April 2017. Photo by Joe Mabel/Creative Commons

SEATTLE (RNS) — Early in this century, the academic center that I direct undertook a research project to examine religion and regionalism in American public life. Of the eight regions we divided the country into, the most distinctive was the Pacific Northwest (PNW)—Washington, Oregon, and Alaska.

The distinctiveness had everything to do with the region’s low degree of religious identification — something that had been the case ever since Anglo-Americans began settling the place in the 19th century. For that reason, we subtitled the volume dedicated to it “the None Zone.”

So begins religious historian and journalist Mark Silk’s essay on religion and the Pacific Northwest. (Full disclosure: I participated in the research project he mentions, but on California, Nevada, and Hawai’i, not the Pacific Northwest.) You may read…

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Let’s Change the Way We Talk About the Midwest

12 May

Northwest Iowa Center for Regional Studies

Movement, changing urban landscapes, and environmental violence are all Midwestern stories. A 4-11 Fire Alarm, Chicago. Source: The Newberry Library

Even as Seemingly Every Article on Midwestern History and Culture aims to complicate understandings of the Midwest, they still start with the assumption that the Midwest is a static, white, rural place. This assumption is not reflected in the historical record, contemporary scholarship, or the lived experiences of so many Midwesterners (including myself); rather, it is a harmful and political statement. For example, in Minnesota the narrative justifies elevating violent legacies of colonizers while erasing past and present Indigenous presence in battles over place names at Bde Maka Ska and Historic Fort Snelling at Bdote. Meanwhile, the Board of Regents at the University of Minnesota is unwilling to reckon with the racist histories associated with campus building names. The nostalgic characterization of the Midwest as perpetually white and…

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Reading, Thinking, and Blogging about History

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"History is the record of our loves in all their magnificent and ignoble forms." Eugene McCarraher

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