In late January of 2015, a tree stood wavering on the edge of Detroit’s burnt-out Grixdale neighborhood. A loud, old engine revved. A 100-foot rope tightened. A car strained forward. The tree followed, snapping and dropping into the overgrown yard of an abandoned house. A group of bearded men looked on from the front yard of a fire-ravaged structure across the street. Satisfaction and relief filled them as the final rays of sunlight scattered into the gray horizon. They had lost two ropes and a chainsaw in bringing down the tree, but they comforted themselves with the thought that the abandoned house and the surrounding telephone lines stood unharmed.
They were pretty far from Detroit’s refurbished downtown. Years ago, this neighborhood had succumbed to the rot brought on by the crack wars. Inhabitants fled, homes were torched, and the long blocks, once designed for cars, were left sparsely populated. In 2015, it remained largely abandoned. Sometimes, there were residual flare-ups of violence and theft. Some ways down the road, there remained a crack house. In this quiet, largely forgotten place, however, adjacent to the vistas of empty lots, under the canopy of old-growth trees, there was a new community growing. They lived amongst the neglected red brick houses and chose to call themselves Fireweed, after the pioneer plant species that takes over the landscape after a forest fire. More… “Why Does a Tree Fall in Detroit?”
In late January in California, in the East Bay, the fences along the streets that I walk are sporadically punctuated with blooming jasmine. The scent is sweet but not heady: a spring scent, reminding me of forsythia, or of the mock-oranges — Philadelphus lewisii, discovered by (and named for) the voyageur Meriwether Lewis in some ditch of eastern Oregon. It’s pleasant, muted yet pervasive, calm. The fences they adorn, however, are anything but subtle. Some are made of board, rough and unpainted, just barely standing, aided by wire or many, many appended nails. Others are bare chain-link, the galvanized wire mesh epitomizing a no-nonsense, function-before-status period of this bungalow-belt neighborhood in Oakland.
This is not atypical. Flowers in January, brilliant sunlight, a sense that you can walk down the street wearing a t-shirt almost any day of the year and not be cold beyond reason. Nor, for that matter, will you be stared at for having made a social or fashion faux pas. Just as the ramshackle wood fence and the no-nonsense mesh fence still stand unremarked upon, taste in clothes is equally unseen. Cars come and go on the street. Drivers hold up hands against the setting sun or flip down sunshades, and all is the same, though one may drive a new BMW, and one a 1980s Toyota Corolla. Though one may wear Gucci and Prada or Tom Ford and another Hanes and Goodwill. And critically, there will be no correlation. Mr. Hanes may be in a Porsche Carrera, and Mr. Ford might be behind the wheel of a Honda Accord. More… “Jasmine and the Good Life”
Alexander Craghead is a historian of design and place. His writing and photography has appeared in regional and national publications, including BOOM: A Journal of California, Railroad Heritage, Trains, and is the author of The Railway Palaces of Portland, Oregon: The Architectural Legacy of Henry Villard(The History Press, 2016). He currently teaches in the American Studies program at University of California Berkley, where he is also a doctoral candidate.
“Everywhere immigrants have enriched and strengthened the fabric of American life.”
-John F. Kennedy, A Nation of Immigrants
“America is for Americans.” If this sounds like the latest 6:30 a.m. pronouncement from the Twittering fingers of the current occupant of the White House, you’re forgiven for being mistaken. It’s from the book Social and Religious Life of Italians in America by Enrico Sartorio, an Italian native and Protestant minister, describing Americans’ reactions to the huge influx of Italian immigrants to this country. The year was 1918. More… “American Roots”
John Ford’s The Searchers is a Western about party of white settlers pursuing a Comanche band that has slaughtered a homesteading family’s males and adults and kidnapped the family’s two daughters. The film presents a question that has puzzled me for years: How is it that a film so glaringly flawed can be so powerful, so great? And it is great. In 2008, the American Film Institute named it the best Western ever made. The same year, Cahiers du Cinéma ranked the film the tenth best film ever made. In 2012, a Sight & Sound survey of international film critics ranked it the seventh best film of all time. Its influence has been noticed in and/or acknowledged by directors as different from one another as David Lean, Sam Peckinpah, Martin Scorsese, Sergio Leone, George Lucas, Jean-Luc Godard, Steven Spielberg, Wim Wenders, and Paul Schrader. It has been an object of intense analysis by numerous scholars. (Anyone interested in reading in-depth work on the film would do well by starting with Edward Buscombe’s monograph in the excellent British Film Institute series of slim but comprehensive, well-researched, and annotated volumes on individual films.) More… “Flawed Greatness”
“I’ve organized a happy hour with a wonderful group of women friends who periodically gather to support each other and share ideas and food,” Lane’s email concluded. “I’m attaching an invite.”
Lane* is a fellow writer whom I’d met in grad school and always liked. It had been many months since we’d last communicated, and I welcomed her invitation.
I looked at the flyer. “This is a great time to envision and work towards common goals and individual life pursuits,” it read. “Let’s share some of our ideas and projects that we hope to accomplish or advance in this new, exciting, uncertain, life-affirming year ahead!” More… “The Price of Friendship”
Kathryn Paulsen writes for stage and screen as well as page. Her essays, short stories, and poetry have appeared in the New York Times, West Branch, New Letters, et al., and may currently be read or are forthcoming in journals including Humber Literary Review, The Stinging Fly, and Saint Ann’s Review. She lives in New York City but, having grown up in an Air Force family, has roots in many places. See her occasional musings at ramblesandrevels.blogspot.com.
When I was seven, I moved out of the room I shared with my older brother and into my own room. I don’t recall what caused my parents to decide this — perhaps it was a birthday present for my brother turning ten — but for me it was nothing if not a mixed blessing. I mean, I loved getting my own desk and new wallpaper that I picked out and my own bed, all the trappings of a room to grow up in. But without my brother there with me, there was something truly terrifying about being alone at night in the dark.
Not that my brother was much of a protector. More often he’d attack me in my sleep, steal and break my toys, and “dead-arm” me over and over again for his sadistic pleasure. But in my room alone, all alone, I felt susceptible to all the forces of darkness — the monsters under the bed, the prowlers lurking at the window, the creepers in the closet waiting to kidnap me. I had no protection at all. Leaving the safety in numbers of my brother’s room and the comfort of our New York Giants’ helmet night light filled me with imaginings of untold peril. More… “Halloween is Cancelled”
At first I couldn’t tell if it was the heat or the banjos that had woken me. All through the night, music had flared up around my tent — guitars, fiddles, double basses — sometimes close, sometimes off in the distance as if in a dream. And now I thought I might be dreaming too, of banjos plunking like raindrops, their notes crisp and clear and falling around me. But the playing continued, and I opened my eyes to realize that the tent was bright and thick with humidity, and the pillow beneath my head was soaked with sweat. The temperature was unbearable. I had pitched camp the previous afternoon without thinking to look for shade, and now, in the glare of the morning sun, my tent had transformed into a sauna. Cursing and wiping my face with a shirt, I fumbled with the flap and lurched outside.
The field was packed. Twice as many tents had appeared since I’d gone to sleep, stretching down the hill out of sight. One huge canopy was pitched right next door, and the music that had woken me was coming from a small group sitting underneath, instruments in hand. One of the women glanced over, waved cheerfully, and called out, “Morning!” before inviting me into the shade. She set down her guitar and introduced herself as Nickie. Then she held up a mason jar and asked if I’d like some moonshine. “Pink lemonade moonshine,” she clarified. “Homemade.”
Will Preston is a writer, journalist, and critic. His writing has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and has appeared in publications across North America, including Smithsonian Folkways, The Common, The Masters Review, and PRISM International. A native of Virginia, he now lives in Portland, Oregon, where he is at work on a book about Appalachian old-time. Visit him at Will Preston.
In the face of our nation’s current turmoil, I suggest that we open our Mencken. This gadfly journalist and critic provides an astute analysis of issues relevant to us today.
Henry Louis (H.L.) Mencken was born in 1880 and died in 1956. He was by nature intemperate and irritable. He disliked most politicians, critics, and journalists (though he himself functioned in the two latter roles). He hated hypocrisy and platitude. When others were lauding the American dream, Mencken could write: “it seems to me that the shadows [on America] were never darker than they are today, and that we must linger in their blackness a long while before ever they are penetrated by authentic shafts of light.” More… “Mencken in the Middle”
All The Way, HBO’s new movie about the passage and aftermath of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, is a messy and curiously double-minded affair. Like Selma, it wants to show that the shopworn narrative of white men grappling with fate in smoky rooms was never the whole story. But All The Way doesn’t give Martin Luther King’s movement enough screen time to live again as the complex entity it was. Instead it’s portrayed as one of the many blocks Johnson has to shift around to secure passage of the bill.
But if All the Way reduces itself to the story of Johnson’s break with Southern whites then, however unintentionally, it does succeed in making one point very clearly: Nostalgia for the Johnson presidency is misplaced, thanks to forces set in motion by the man himself. More… “They’re Not Coming Back”