At first glance, it’s easy not to muster up any sympathy for the college student who traveled to Charlottsville in Confederate garb, heavily armed, to salute the statue of Robert E. Lee. The student was subsequently kicked out of Pensacola Christian College. True, it was an exercise in poor judgement to rush into town in the aftermath of a violent neo-Nazi demonstration. And the student’s understanding of the Civil War is flawed, to say the least. However, having gone to high school in the South, I’ve experienced how that flawed understanding of the Civil War is promulgated by that region’s educational institutions. This incident is not just a personal failure in judgement, but an institutional failure as well.
During my time in the South, I met countless characters like the student in question. Steeped in the mythology of the Lost Cause, a viewpoint that the Civil War was a war of Northern Aggression, that the South was defending its economy against oppressive tariffs. Slavery? Nah, that had nothing to do with it. Often the individuals I met who doubled down on this to the point where it was a major component of their self-identity, came from the lowest rungs of white Southern culture. How does this happen?
Part of it is the promise that if you adopt this cultural outlook, you’ll move up in the ranks of society. Go along to get along. That’s a con, of course. Once on the bottom, always on the bottom, no matter how furiously you double down on that. For me, that was easy to figure out. I moved down South my sophomore year in high school. I could see the trajectory my Northern friends were taking in high school and compare to mine. While strongly encouraged to adopt that same neo-Confederate self-identity as a means to fit in, I could clearly see my future consisted of menial labor unless I physically expunged myself from that situation. What if I did not have that external social network to recognize that? That is an alternative universe I am grateful never to have to visit.
I took American History in my third year of high school. Thankfully, I had an African-American history teacher who had no interest in promoting the Lost Cause of the South. That, however, is an anomaly. Beyond the confines of that class, the societal/educational institutions of the South are geared towards a revisionist history of the Civil War. While we can hold individuals accountable for a deeply flawed take on the Civil War, we also need to hold educational institutions accountable as well. What changes need to be made?
A constructionist study on the causes of the Civil War should be implemented in American History courses. Rather than lecture to the students, have the students take a look at the historical documents directly. A good start are the Declaration of Causes of Succeeding States which, in plain language, describe the reasons the South succeeded from the Union. There will be a lot of political/societal resistance to this. And that is why it is important for students to examine the actual historical documents firsthand rather than play a game of which authority figure to trust on this.
In addition, a sequence on racial violence should be introduced. Most of the Confederate statues in question were built during a wave of racial violence from 1900-25. When I went to high school, this period of violence, which included riots with fatalities into the hundreds, was expunged from the history texts. I did not learn of the Tulsa riot of 1921 that killed over 300 in high school. Nor, for that matter, the Houston riot of 1917 that killed 17 in one night even though I went to high school in that city. The real revision of Civil War history took place during this era. An understanding that the cause of Southern succession was an reassertion of white supremacy is merely a restoration of history.
Another focus for educators is the matter of self-identity. While it’s great to study history and understand how we got to where we are, it has to be emphasized to students it’s a mistake to base your self-identity on the past. You can’t bask in a historic figure’s victories, nor take the hit for their faults. Someone born in the present day South is not responsible for past slavery, anymore than I am for slavery that existed in New York prior to its abolition in 1827. You only become complicit in past sins when you personally, knowingly or not, perpetuate the cause. You have to establish your own life’s legacy in the here and now. Education is not just delivering subject content, but building a student’s sense of self. We need to be cognizant of that.
If educational institutions are going to expel students for adopting a neo-Confederate outlook, we have to be accountable to those standards as well – notwithstanding the intense political pressures that come along with that. That goes for both the North & South these days. During the late 70’s as I flew back and forth between the two, I was often reminded of the Byrds’ song Eight Miles High on the surrealism of flying between two culturally distinct regions. Those distinctions have largely dissipated. Today, you’re as likely to see a Confederate flag in Upstate New York as you are in Texas. Lots of work needs to be done all the way around on this matter.
During the summer of 1982, I worked at the City of Houston Tax Office. Listening to homeowners grouse about their taxes 8 hours a day was not fun, but the job paid well, and it beat working at McDonald’s for the summer. Lunch hour was literally that – one hour long and it gave me a lot of time to explore downtown Houston. Across the street from City Hall was the central library. On the first floor was a nifty bound periodical section that included all the issues of Life Magazine from its run starting in 1936 and ending in 1972. The release of the movie Detroit this week concerning the 1967 riots brought me back to that summer.
Typically, to read old issues of a magazine such as Life, one had to head towards the microfilm room. It was a treat to spend my summer lunch hours reading the real deal. Historians will usually claim that history can’t truly be understood until 50 years afterwards. It often takes that long for classified documents to become public. However, I think there is certainly value in experiencing history as the people did during any given time period. And for most of its run, Life was the go to source for photojournalism. Being a World War II buff, I made it a point to examine every issue from 1939 to the end of the Nuremberg trials. And it was the Detroit riots that provided a first crack in the edifice for me of standard World War II history, where America was entirely united in wartime.
I was nineteen and by then, I had a pretty good background on the war, the politics, and the battles, but was still lacking in nuance. How did the Detroit riots of 1967 play into this? To understand what happened in 1967, you have to understand the 1943 Detroit riots. And those riots are not typically addressed in high school history or encyclopedia accounts of World War II. Life magazine gave me a first glimpse into that aspect of American history and later in the 1980’s, Studs Terkle and Paul Fussell, among others, provided a more comprehensive understanding of America during that period.
Google has partnered with Time-Life and has all the issues of Life online. Besides allowing me to relive the summer of ’82, we can take a look at how the Detroit riots were covered at the time. It started in 1942, when a white mob attempted to block African-Americans from occupying the Sojourner Truth Homes. As the war resulted in intense labor shortages, blacks were recruited from the South to work in the war plants. Life’s coverage of that event can be found here. Five months later, Life followed up with a series on the racial factions in Detroit and the ongoing tensions still existing. Tragically, Life’s reporting was prescient of things to come.
The 1943 riots lasted from June 20-22 and left 34 dead. The start of the riot, as is often the case, was generated by false rumors of both white attacks on blacks and vise versa. The root cause was ongoing racial discrimination from housing and the best jobs in the auto industry. Detroit’s population surged from 465,000 in 1910 to 1.6 million in 1940 resulting in a housing shortage that left blacks in sub-standard dwellings. The casualties of the 1943 riot were mostly black as both white mobs and police outnumbered black residents. The Life coverage of the riot notes that, “Detroit can either blow up Hitler or blow up the U.S.” In the end, Detroit blew up Hitler, but as Life noted, the riots were a huge propaganda tool for Nazi Germany. Life’s nine page coverage of the riot can be found here.
The 1967 riot was a link in a long chain of racial tensions in Detroit. The 1967 riot was more deadlier – 43 died and it came just after the Newark riot. Life begins its coverage by referring to the riot as “the Negro revolt” akin to the phrase rebellion used today. The economy was booming in 1967 with a national unemployment rate of 3.8%, even lower than it was in the late ’90’s boom. However, it was 11% for blacks in Detroit. Also, the decade saw the migration of whites and jobs out to the suburbs and out of reach for inner city blacks. Add in the additional stress caused by the Vietnam War and you got a toxic brew of racial tension. Life’s coverage of the 1967 riot can be found here.
Riots weren’t the only thing I read about in 1982. Here are some links to articles that stand out to me 35 years later.
These, of course, reflect my personal interests. To explore the Google Life archives you can go to its homepage. Also, the Google Life photo archive has millions of photos and you can take a gander at that here. The online search function makes it easy to locate issues of interest, but browsing through issues and randomly looking at articles and advertisements can provide some nuggets as well. The dichotomy between the articles on the war front and home front is particularly striking during World War II.
And what of the collection at the Houston library where I originally read these articles? Its been moved to the closed stacks and replaced by a computer lab. Like everything else, progress sometimes comes with a price.
The film Hidden Figures, while high in entertainment value, takes some liberties with history. That’s not unusual for the movie industry. For starters, the book the movie is based on is 270 pages. Taking the rule of thumb that a screenplay requires one page for one minute, meaning the screenplay for the movie clocks in around 120 pages, right there is a lot of cutting to do. The first 172 pages of the book covers ground before NASA was founded. I suspect the movie pushed these events into the NASA era as the public is familiar with NASA, but not its predecessor NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics). Consequently, the movie misses out on World War II being a key trigger of the Civil Rights movement in and beyond NASA.
NACA existed from 1915 until 1958 when it was folded into NASA. NACA wind tunnels and research facilities played a crucial role in advancing aviation from propeller to jet engines and towards the birth of the space age. As the threat of war became imminent in 1939, NACA’s Langley facilities received publicity from Life Magazine as America needed to upgrade its aviation research. The war would also change the American economy from one that endured double-digit unemployment from the start of the Great Depression in 1930 to a high pressure economy with severe labor shortages. This shortage caused wartime employers to think out of the box when it came to traditional hiring practices.
The unemployment rate dropped from 14.6% in 1940 to a record low 1.2% in 1944. Below are the number of jobs created each month during the war. In 1942, 3.8 million new jobs were created. To put this in perspective, with a much larger workforce, 2 million jobs were created in 2016.
The story of Rosie the Riveter is well-known as millions of new job opportunities opened up for women in war production. What is not as well-known are the opportunities this opened up for African-Americans who beforehand were routinely discriminated in all but a narrow range of jobs. In the case of the women in Hidden Figures, they typically would have taken teaching jobs in a segregated black school. With the war ramping up the need for aviation research at Langley, opportunity came knocking for those who ordinarily would not have gotten it.
Located in Virginia, Langley was segregated during World War II. Women were employed as computers to handle what was considered the drudgery of mathematical calculations. Prior to World War II, America would demobilize after a war and Langley would have laid off many of its employees. However, with the upcoming Cold War, much of the workforce stayed on. And once women and African-Americans got the taste of opportunity, they were hungry for more. One can trace a direct line between the massive labor shortages of World War II, the beginnings of integration during the 1950’s, and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s.
The effort to integrate Langley occurred during the 1950’s before it became part of NASA. Integration at the base tended to go more smoothly than the surrounding region. While the computers were assigned to engineering groups, effectively ending the white and black computing departments, the state of Virginia was fiercely fighting school integration. Some school districts opted to shut down entirely while other towns opened all-white private academies to preserve segregation. At the university level, Virginia offered out-of-state scholarships to black students to keep the state university all white. These attempts to maintain segregation still lingered in the South when I moved to Texas in 1978. Some schools chose to classify each white student as gifted to enforce segregation with all-white advanced classes.
The book delves into this matter more so than the movie. When Mary Jackson wins court approval to attend an all-white school, the book notes her disappointment at the run down appearance of the building. The cost of needlessly operating duel school systems to maintain segregation was inefficient and lowered the educational experience for both white and black students. This is not restricted to the Deep South. I experienced integration in the Buffalo school system from 1976-77. It was no big deal for myself and my classmates but the same cannot be said for many of the parents. Over the next few decades, the schools re-segregated as whites moved out of the city into all white suburbs.
Metro areas which lack diversity tend to be economically stagnant. Young talent in fast growing industries favor diversity as that reduces the odds their talent will be left on the table. The longer Buffalo attempts to maintain segregation, the more difficulty it will have adapting to the new high-tech economy. The ability to adapt is a key feature in Hidden Figures and on an personal level, the main characters adaptation skills kept them gainfully employed at Langley for several decades.
The three decades from 1940-69 encompassed three distinct eras in aviation. First was the propeller planes of World War II, then the jet age of the Korean War, and finally rocket propulsion of the space age. As the book notes, America was slower than Europe to embrace rocket technology. Going back to when Robert Goddard was ridiculed by the New York Times for his proposals to use rockets for space exploration, America viewed this type of work as science fiction. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory was named as such to disguise its rocket research program. While the German V-2 brought rockets into reality, at Langley, up until Sputnik, the engineers were discouraged from working on space research.
When America was hurled into the space age in 1957, those at Langley who could not adapt were let go and missed out on the Apollo era. Those who did adapt, as demonstrated in both the book and the movie, stayed on until their retirements in the 1970’s and ’80’s. The retirement parties given were reflective of a different era in employee relations.
When I started working in the early 80’s, retirement parties were a common event. At Exxon, the Graphic Arts Department would put together a poster representing the retiree’s career. The last retirement party I’ve been to was in the early 90’s. In the private sector at least, very few people make it to voluntary retirement, usually getting let go before then. And the process is as impersonal as it can possibly be. The idea being that’s how Ayn Rand would have wanted it, or something. The current lack of social structure and churning of employees in the corporate world reduces productivity as job knowledge is chronically allowed to walk out the door.
The engineers at Langley were not prone to let talent lie fallow. The professional crew came from all parts of the country and had varying attitudes towards women and blacks in the workplace. It was one such engineer who allowed Mary Jackson to work in the air tunnel and eventually move up as an engineer. Another engineer convinced his superior to allow Katherine Johnson’s name as co-author on a research paper as “she was doing most of the work anyway.” The women at Langley were numerous enough to build an extensive support network which helped them advance. The African-American men not so much. They dealt with segregation via avoidance such as eating lunch in a black owned restaurant off the Langley premises to elude the segregated cafeteria. Unlike as depicted in the movie, the most egregious episodes of discrimination came from the locals who were mostly employed as technicians. One such example was a tech sabotaging a wind tunnel experiment run by a black engineer. The engineer’s manager chewed out the tech publicly to prevent another occurence.
What lessons can we take from this history? On an individual/company level, look at your employees talent and use it to the fullest for optimal performance. That means allowing for diversity in the workplace. To use an analogy, would major league baseball been better off without the talents of Henry Aaron and Willie Mays? We know the answer as teams like the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, who were slow to integrate, suffered long stretches of losing seasons in the 1960’s as a result. Also, adaptability is key for survival. The instinct to stand pat should be avoided. On a macro level, a policy of pushing for a high pressure economy can induce societal and economic change as employers are forced to innovate in their hiring practices. While we can’t restore the past to bring about positive results, we can at least take home the proper lessons of history.
*Image above is from Katherine Johnson’s first author credit. The full research paper can be found here. Another notable effort from Johnson is on the navigation for Solar System exploration which can be found here.
“A metropolitan economy, if it is working well, is constantly transforming many poor people into middle-class people, many illiterates into skilled people, many greenhorns into competent citizens.” – Jane Jacobs
During the 1960’s, an urban dispute broke out between Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses. Nominally, the quarrel originated from Moses’s desire to build high speed expressways and master planned communities wiping out existing neighborhoods. However, it was really an age old debate on how to build communities. Moses favored a top-down process while Jacobs felt cities were best served by allowing neighborhoods to develop from the bottom up. While watching the documentary Citizen Jane which explored this era, it occurred to me this topic is universal in nature and applies just as well in education. If cities, as Jacobs said, transform illiterates into skilled people, certainly schools do the same. What can we learn from this era?
The challenge Moses faced was how to integrate a new technology (automobiles) into cities and relieve overcrowding. Urban renewal was not a new phenomena. The streets of Paris were widened and many older, medieval neighborhoods cleared out by Georges-Eugene Haussmann between 1853-70. Modern Paris largely owes its appearance to Haussmann’s efforts. Moses’ efforts were less successful integrating the automobile into the existing city and along with his master planned communities broke down crucial social connections. As the saying goes, bridges, not walls, build cities. Moses’ work effectively built walls in the city.
Things came to a head when Moses proposed to build a highway through the SoHo and Little Italy neighborhoods in Lower Manhattan. A grassroots resistance effort led by Jane Jacobs put a stop to this plan and began the downfall of Robert Moses as a major power broker. Jacobs was opposed to master planning and felt cities become great organically by problem solving decisions made on the street level. As a result, there has been a tendency to view this as a you’re with us or you’re against us kind of debate. The truth is, you need central planning to provide a framework for individuals to make those uncoordinated decisions to complete a city.
Moses left his imprint all across New York State and Buffalo was no exception. Like New York City, neighborhoods were divided by the Kensington Expressway and waterfront access blocked by the Niagara Thruway. An expressway was constructed across Delaware Park that was designated as vacant land on the planning maps. Does this prove planning inherently to be a bad idea? Not when you consider the parkway system destroyed was master planned by Frederick Law Olmstead in the 1800’s. The highly successful existing street plan had been designed by Joseph Ellicott based on the same blueprint his brother used for Washington D.C. What differentiates good planing from bad planing and what can we take from that from building communities in classrooms?
Infrastructure should not be viewed only as a means of moving material, but transporting and exchanging ideas as well. This was Moses’ key mistake. Interstates can move tens of thousands of cars in and out of a city, but unlike city streets, are not places for people to exchange ideas or build social connections. When that aspect of a community is taken away, the community begins to decay. When attempting to integrate new technology into the classroom, it has to be more than just delivering content, there has to be a mechanism in place to allow the class to exchange thoughts on the content delivered. Many students I have talked to have felt alienated, especially in online classes, by the lack of interaction made available.
Ideological arguments often take the form of all or nothing stances. In this case, whether discussing cities or the classrooms, we can’t look at it as all top down micromanagement vs. total freedom on the ground level. It’s like saying you only need air or gasoline in an automobile engine. One without the other will not make the engine work. You need the right mixture for optimal performance and the same is true for planning vs. ground level innovation. In education, the framework should be as follows:
A master curriculum for the course to cover, but allow the instructor the freedom to decide how to address it. The instructor will know the students needs and abilities much more than the bureaucracy above.
Within the framework of the class, students should be allowed to explore their own interests within each topic after a minimum proficiency is proven. In my course, this takes the form of discussion segments where students are allowed to present findings on a subject they have selected. Students have to be allowed to breathe and choose how they delve deeper into the subject.
Going back to the city analogy, without an overall plan to provide a framework, the result is a free for all situation. This would be reminiscent of when I lived in Houston during the late 1970’s when the city had no zoning laws. You ended up with adult book stores, strip joints, and message parlors located next to schools, an obviously undesirable situation. On the other hand, too much planning leaves neighborhoods devoid of any sort of vibrancy. This was seen in the high-rise projects all across the nation that were eventually imploded.
When something implemented does not work out as planned, adaptability, rather than doubling down on a poor idea, is desired. The aforementioned high rise projects looked great on paper, offering green space and play areas for children. In fact, Jane Jacobs herself originally thought these would be great for city life. Once the reality failed to match expectations, Jacobs reevaluated her position whereas Robert Moses did not. The same is true for a lesson plan that looks great on paper but fails to light a spark in the class. Keep what works, change what does not.
When introducing new technology into an existing classroom, it should compliment and enhance the current course structure. While I teach online, I am wary of high-tech evangelicals who view the internet as a cure all for what ails education. Technology can be a helpful tool. but the rush to “disrupt” the education sector can have the same results building highways in residential neighborhoods and parks did. That’s not disruption, it was destruction. We want to think in terms of improving the student experience, not to destroy it.
Come to think of it, that’s the approach to take in any community endeavor.
“And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind.” – Revelation 6:13
On the night of November 13, 1833, a young Illinois man was awakened by an urgent rap on the door. A Presbyterian Deacon was issuing warnings to his neighbors that the day of judgement had arrived. The young man walked outside to see hundreds of falling stars in the sky. Noting that the constellations were in their usual spots, Abraham Lincoln concluded correctly that this was an unusually intense meteor storm and not the end of the world. This scene was repeated across North America as many resorted to the biblical interpretation of what was happening. When the Sun rose the following morning, a shaken populace realized life would go on as normal. This meteor storm would begin our modern understanding of the science behind these events.
The world of 1833 was one without electric lights and the Moon had set in the early evening giving North America an unobstructed view of one of the great astronomical events in modern times. The Leonids, an annual meteor shower that yields about a dozen meteors per hour, generated tens of thousands of meteors per hour in 1833. Prior to this event, meteors were thought to be an atmospheric phenomena. The word meteor is derived from Greek as meaning high in the sky and of course, is also the basis for the word meteorology. Some good old fashion detective work by Denison Olmsted kick-started the modern science of meteors.
Olmsted examined depictions of the meteor storm from across the nation via newspaper accounts, an arduous task 165 years before Google arrived on the scene. His report included descriptions from New Haven, Boston, West Point, Maryland, Ohio, South Carolina, Georgia, and Missouri. Olmsted also received word of a similar event in 1799, a finding that would play a key role in his investigation. A cold front had moved through the eastern half of the United States dropping temperatures 15 to 30 degrees. This had the effect of clearing haze from the previous days unusually warm weather making the seeing even more ideal.
Olmsted had noted there were no unusual observations from magnetic instruments. This is important as some reports came in that the storm was accompanied by aurora. Finally, Olmsted discovered that the meteors had radiated from a point in the constellation Leo.
This data had led Olmsted to deduce that meteors were not an atmospheric event but caused by a cloud of debris in space. This theory was strengthened in subsequent years as observations confirmed the meteor shower was an annual event – albeit with much less intensity than the 1833 storm. The question remained, where did this debris come from and why was the 1833 storm so unique in its magnitude? It would take another three decades to obtain the answer.
In 1866, Comet Tempel-Tuttle was discovered as it approached the Sun. It had been observed before, but it was on this pass where its 33 year orbit was calculated to intersect the Earth’s orbit. As a comet approaches the Sun, it forms two tails. Radiation pressure from sunlight creates a dust tail, and ultraviolet radiation ionizes gas from the comet which is then swept away by the solar wind. Cometary tails are very tenuous. In fact, you could fit the contents of the tail inside a suitcase. However, when these small particles strike the Earth’s atmosphere at high speeds, they burn up and cause the streaking meteors we see on the ground. In the case of Comet Tempel-Tuttle, it leaves a fresh deposit of debris every 33 years. This will often, as in the case of the 1833 pass, result in a spectacular meteor storm.
All annual meteor showers are produced this way and the interactive below demonstrates how Comet Tempel-Tuttle generates the annual Leonids meteor shower.
Can a meteor storm generate an aurora as some reported in 1833? The answer is no. Comet debris are insufficient in mass to disturb the Earth’s magnetic field to create an aurora in the mid-latitudes. It is possible the quantity of meteors created an optical illusion of background light mistaken fo an aurora.
In 1866, observers in Europe measured hundreds of meteors per hour confirming the comets role in producing the storm. Some detective work was required to link Comet Tempel-Tuttle’s prior passes to other meteor storms. It was discovered that Chinese astronomers observed a Leonid storm in 902 AD. In 1630, two days after Johannes Kepler passed away, another Leonid storm was seen. And in 1799, as noted by Dennison Olmsted’s research, an intense storm occurred. A large storm such as these do not happen with each pass. The years 1899 and 1932 produced upticks in meteor counts, but were disappointments for those hoping for a repeat of the 1833 storm. However, 1966 & 1999 produced bursts of several thousand meteors per minute. Still, the 1833 event stands alone as the greatest of all meteor storms.
The legend of the 1833 Leonids lived for decades afterwards. Frederick Douglass recounted his memory of the meteor storm in his 1881 autobiography.
“…was also the year of that strange phenomenon when the heavens seemed about to part with their starry train. I witnessed this gorgeous spectacle, and was awe-struck. The air seemed filled with bright descending messengers from the sky. It was about daybreak when I saw this sublime scene..” – Life and Times of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass , page 127.
“Probably no celestial phenomenon has ever occurred in this country, since its first settlement, which was viewed with so much admiration and delight by one class of spectators, or with so much astonishment and fear by another class.”
By the end of the 19th Century, the nature of meteor showers was understood not to be a harbinger of the end of the world. America had experienced much history between 1833 and 1900. Frederick Douglass was five years away from freedom when he witnessed the 1833 meteor storm. Lincoln was 30 years away from residing over the most costly war in American history. By the end of the century, America was an emerging power that over the ensuing five decades and two world wars, would take over global leadership formally held by the European colonial power. Leaving fear and superstition behind in favor of knowledge and education played no small role in that transformation.
*Image atop post is a woodcut carving of 1833 Leonid meteor shower over Niagara Falls. One witness described as such: “No spectacle so terribly grand and sublime was ever before beheld by man as that of the firmament descending in firery torrents over the dark and roaring cataract.” – From the Bible Readings for the Home Circle, page 367.
Awhile back, I stumbled across the 1976 TV movie Time Travelers. Originally intended as a series pilot, it did not sell and was broadcast as a stand alone movie with a story developed by Rod Serling in what was one of his last writing credits. The plot involved two scientists going back in time to 1871 on the eve of the Great Chicago Fire to track down a doctor who mysteriously had been able to cure a fatal disease. For a TV sci-fi movie, it had a solid plot but as one would expect, the special effects do not hold up well after four decades. Still, it got me thinking how different history could be taught now as compared to the pre-internet era when I originally saw the movie while I was in grade school. Also, if sci-fi can inspire students to study science, why not history as well?
Back in the 1970’s, studying history was basically a static exercise reading a history book. With the internet, many historical archives are at your fingertips and can make history a more interactive subject. Going back to the movie, when the scientists arrive in 1871 Chicago, one mentions they must have arrived in the Summer and not in October as it was too hot. His partner replies that Chicago endured a heat wave in October, 1871. Is that right? President Grant established the National Weather Service the same year, so daily records are a bit sparse, but the answer can be found online.
What you’ll discover is that the temperature in Chicago on the day of the fire soared to a summer-like 79 degrees with winds gusting from the Southwest at 22 mph. Also, precipitation the month leading up to the fire had been sparse, making the conditions ripe for the disaster. So, the movie was spot on about the weather conditions that day. By delving into old newspaper archives, we can find out more.
Back in the day, if you wanted to look at historical newspaper accounts, you went to the library and headed towards the microfilm machines. Today, many newspapers have digitized their archives. In the case of the New York Times, the online archive goes back to 1851. Looking into the Times account of the fire, I found a few surprises.
On October 7th, there had been a sizable six block fire in Chicago that served as a prelude to the main event. That fire raged until the morning of October 8th and was reported in the Times as the worst fire in Chicago history up to that point.
On October 8th came in a report of a second fire now raging in Chicago even greater than the first. The progression of events in this article is not unlike the What’s Happened So Far features you now see in online formats today.
October 10th would bring full front page coverage of the fire including a map of Chicago where the damaged occurred. The graphic is very unusual for papers of that era. The article, titled A City in Ruins, would go on to describe the damage as 12,000 buildings lost and 100,000 homeless, and remember, there was no FEMA back then. The cause was still being investigated. In fact, the Times made no mention of the infamous O’Leary cow until November 29th. A Chicago reporter later admitted making up the story, saying it made better copy. Unfortunately, fake news is nothing new. When O’Leary died in 1895, the obituary in the Times still repeated the fake story.
The Times even repeated the story for O’Leary’s son’s obituary in 1925. This, despite the Times publishing an article four years earlier exonerating O’Leary’s cow, proving the stubborn power of a false myth.
The fire did start near the O’Leary residence at 137 De Koven St. You can locate this spot using Google Maps but you’ll need the current address of 558 W. De Koven St. What you’ll find there is, not by coincidence, the Chicago Fire Training Academy. Switching to 3-D gives this overview:
As noted before, there was a strong wind from the SW the day of the fire and you can see from the image how that would have swept the flames into the heart of downtown Chicago inflicting maximum damage on the city’s residents. The fire had economic effects beyond Chicago. The price of stocks dropped 10% the days after the fire. This was a prelude to the economic crisis of 1873 which prompted a depression lasting until 1879. Chicago, then and now, is the United States’s largest railroad center and the fire had a disruptive effect throughout the nation. And that is probably what led to my biggest surprise on this project.
The Chicago fire was not the most deadly fire in the United States that day. The drought conditions that led to the Chicago fire sparked forest fires throughout the Upper Midwest. The worst of which was north of Green Bay and engulfed the town of Pishtego, WI killing over 1,200, four times more than in Chicago. The first and only article on this event appeared in the Times on October 15th and soon faded into obscurity.
I hate to admit it, but this was the first time I had heard of the Pishtego fire. It deserves a more prominent place in grade school history books and provides a greater understanding of the Chicago fire as part of an overall regional disaster.
I would be remiss in pointing out that as great as it is to have these internet resources at our fingertips, there are still some historical items not available online and it never hurts to check out your local library, especially the closed stacks, to see what might be there. You’ll never know what surprises are in store.
Returning to the movie that started me on this topic, while travel back in time is allowed in general relativity, it is not remotely doable with current technology. One solution is to have an infinitely long, rotating cylindrical tube that can drag and distort space-time to the point where you travel back in time. Good luck finding one of those lying around. Another solution allows for backward time travel but only until your time machine became operational. In the case of the movie, you could only travel back in time to 1976, but not before. However, the engineering involved would be much, much more advanced than what we now have at our disposal. In fact, a civilization would require the ability to harness the energy of an entire galaxy to attempt this.
As long as you are careful to discern fact from fiction, time travel stories can be an entertaining way to explore history. In the case of Time Travelers, other concepts besides the fire touched upon includes the traumatic impact of Civil War deaths on the civilian population, and the romantic idea of traveling to the past would be diminished greatly if you had to use the medical facilities at the time. Unlike in 1976, when I first saw the movie, technical improvements today make it possible to examine historical documents of the Great Chicago Fire at home or in the classroom. I must admit, I would jump at the opportunity to travel into the past, but I also realize there are lots of things about life in 2017 that are really great.
*Image atop post is a Currier & Ives lithograph of the Great Chicago Fire.
As Apollo 11 sat on the launch pad, ready to complete what is arguably the most impressive technical achievement in history, a group of protesters marched towards Cape Kennedy. Had he not been assassinated a year earlier, Martin Luther King Jr. would have led the march. In his place was his best friend, Ralph Abernathy, who took over King’s role as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. As Abernathy put it, the protest was not against the Apollo program per se, but to “protest America’s inability to choose human priorities.” As we live in a democracy, proponents of space exploration should be prepared to answer the question, how does the space program benefit the poor and the general public?
These thoughts came back to me while watching I Am Not Your Negro, the documentary on James Baldwin. There is a tendency to think of the 1950’s and 60’s as when America was great. Certainly, the economy was booming and middle class wages were rising, but as the documentary detailed, America was suffering from terrible social strife. Progress was made legislatively on civil rights, but there were race riots in the cities claiming scores of lives along with a general spike in violent crime. It was against this backdrop that the Apollo program existed.
There is the standard argument that the funds spent on the space program are minuscule compared to the overall federal budget. And that is true, NASA’s spending is about 0.5% of the budget and peaked during the Apollo era at 5%. Current spending on NASA comes out to $60 per person per year. So is NASA just a highly publicized target for protest? I think we have to look at the problem in a different light. That being a policy of resource/education deprivation certain portions of the American population have endured in our history.
Resource deprivation is a hallmark of authoritarian regimes. If people are struggling to survive on a day-to-day basis, it makes it more difficult to sustain political resistance. The history of African-Americans is certainly one of life under authoritarianism, from slavery to Jim Crow era lynchings and segregation. And while significant improvements on that front have been made the past few decades, African-Americans continue to experience the impact of historical resource deprivation in terms of household wealth.
A key historical component of segregation was job discrimination. During its early years, NASA ranked at the bottom of all federal agencies when it came to minority hiring. While the book and subsequent movie, aptly named Hidden Figures, reveals crucial contributions to the Apollo program by African-Americans, the public face of NASA, the astronauts and mission control, were all white. It was this facade that led Gil Scott-Heron to record Whitey on the Moon.
So where do we go with this? NASA has improved the diversity of its workforce greatly. Kennedy Space Center employees are currently 27% minority. While that helps those employed by NASA, what about Americans who live in poverty? If one is segregated from the space program, you have no reason to support it, but that is true of any endeavor. It’s no different than building a shopping mall without access to public transit, or a museum, or schools that are inaccessible to minorities. The key to long-term sustainability is to integrate the benefits of the space program to all corners of society.
The Apollo program lacked this sustainability. Once the political aim of beating the Soviet Union to the Moon was achieved, the Apollo program was cancelled during the recession of the early 1970’s. Lost was the science phase of the program – Apollo missions 18-20. In fact, support for the Apollo program among the American public was tepid. The only time more than half the public approved expenditures on Apollo was briefly in 1969 during the first Moon landing. And even then, approval was only 53 percent. The key to changing this is to turn space exploration from a “spectator sport” to one the public can actively participate in.
One obvious way of achieving this is integrating NASA research in K-12 education. The amounts of data pouring in from NASA missions often require the efforts of citizen science to sort through it all. Such an effort also requires educator training since many teachers, especially in high-need districts, teach outside their specialty. And this effort should seek to aggressively reach out to the districts highest in need. If successful, a public actively engaged in space exploration will tend to be more supportive of it. Is exploring space worth this time and effort?
Perhaps the most important aspect of space exploration is understanding how the Earth fits in the universe. Right now, there are no other planets where humanity can commence a mass migration. Colonizing Mars, while feasible, is much more difficult than living in Antarctica, where only a few dozen scientists live at any given time. We may discover Earth-like planets around other stars, but traveling to them as seen in Star Trek or Star Wars will not occur in our lifetimes, if at all. Understanding this, and the fragile protections Earth offers humanity from a universe largely hostile to life, underscores the urgency in solving key environmental issues such as climate change.
Astronomy is among the most ubiquitous of the sciences. Across all the continents and spanning throughout history, civilizations have sought out answers to what lies in the sky above them. Nations that have been economically and socially healthy have been ones who have made the greatest advancements in astronomy. Recently, the Trump administration has floated ambitious plans to return to the Moon by 2020. By nature, space enthusiasts have jumped on the bandwagon. However, as history has shown, if the United States also embarks on a program of resource deprivation such as repealing ACA, cutting Medicare, and turning education over to for-profit interests, public support for space exploration spending will not only be weak, but hostile. The protest led by Ralph Abernathy in 1968 will look like a Sunday picnic by comparison.
During the Apollo program, it was often suggested that the management methods of the space program could be transferred towards solving poverty. The space program cannot solve poverty, nor should it claim to be capable of that. However, the space program can play a partnership role with the rest of the government and private entities toward that goal. If we really want a sustained effort to go to the Moon, Mars, and beyond, it will have to be within an overall framework of a civilization that values inclusiveness and equality. As Ralph Abernathy stated after watching the launch of Apollo 11:
“This is really holy ground. And it will be more holy once we feed the hungry, care for the sick, and provide for those who do not have houses.”
*Image atop post is Apollo 11 on the launchpad during the early morning hours of July 16, 1969. Credit: NASA.
Feynman begins his tale with the travel arrangements from Ithaca to Buffalo. He was spared the three hour drive by flying Robinson Airlines, with the plane piloted by Mr. Robinson himself. This regional airline was one of the many that began service after the war and would supplant train travel over the next few decades. Robinson Airlines eventually became Mohawk Airlines which was bought out by Allegheny Airlines in 1970. Allegheny changed its name to US Air in 1979 and was folded into American Airlines in 2015. A picture of a Robinson airplane along with Mr. Robinson can be found here.
Cornell gave Feynmen a $35 ($350 in 2017) stipend each week for his trouble. At first, Feynmen considered saving the money, but Feynman being Feynman, decided to use the funds to look for some adventures while in Buffalo after his lectures at the Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory. The facility was originally operated by Curtiss-Wright, but as the war ended, the company downsized its production in Buffalo greatly and turned the lab over as a gift to Cornell. During its run as a Cornell facility, the staff invented the crash test dummy, seat belts, and developed aircraft simulators. Now privately operated, the facility is still located across the street from the airport and is known as Calspan.
Feynman was hired by Cornell after working at the Manhattan Project where he became known for his uncanny ability to quickly solve equations and for picking locks. The latter was Feynman’s way of irking the powers that be at the project. During the first atomic test at the Trinity site, Feynman threw off his eye protection gear so as to be one of the few to actually witness the blast. However, Feynman eventually became melancholy over both the destructive nature of the atomic bomb and the death of his wife in June 1945 from tuberculosis. This may have contributed to his slow career start at Cornell.
“I would see people building a bridge and I would say “they don’t understand.” I really believed that it was senseless to make anything because it would all be destroyed very soon anyway, but they didn’t understand that and I had this very strange view of any construction that I would see, I would always think how foolish they are to try to make something. So I was really in a kind of depressive condition.” – Richard Feynman from the documentary The Pleasure of Finding Things Out.
Nonetheless, when Feynman got to Buffalo, he asked a local cab driver, a man named Marcuso, driving cab No. 169, to take him to a bar “with lots of interesting things going on.” The cabbie drove Feynman to the Alibi Room located at 8 W. Chippewa near the corner of Main St. The late 40’s, at the start of the post-war boom but before the exodus to the suburbs starting in the ’50’s, was when downtown was in its peak. The Alibi Room was situated in the heart of the theater district and the scene would have looked like this as Feynman’s cab approached the bar.
The Alibi Room itself was new, first appearing in the Buffalo Register in 1946. Feynman described it as a place where, “The women were dressed in furs, everybody was friendly, and the phones were ringing all the time.” As Feynman would later find out, the phones were ringing all the time as it was a local bookie joint, and the women in furs were ladies of the night. This is confirmed by my discussions with those familiar with the Alibi Room. Eventually, Feynman settled into a routine where he would order shots of Black and White scotch with chaser of water and close the place down at 2 AM – Buffalo’s current 4 AM closing time did not go into effect until the 1970’s.
This went on for the duration of the semester. Sometimes, Feynman would end up at an after hours speakeasy. Following his last lecture of the semester, Feynman found himself in a fight in the restroom at the Alibi Room. Once the situation calmed down, Feynman downed a shot of scotch, started talking loud, almost caused hostilities to resume at the bar with three friends of the original antagonist. Another regular at the bar, whom an appreciative Feynman later described as a first-rate expert in diffusing bar fights, interceded by pretending to be a friend of Feynman, then convinced Feynman to leave. Returning to Cornell with a black eye, Feynman went to teach his class, looked at his students, shiner and all, toughened up his tone of voice and asked…
That was the end of Feynman’s adventures with Buffalo nightlife. In 1951, Feynman moved on to Caltech where he developed a quantum theory of electromagnetism. Referred to as quantum electrodynamics (QED), this theory incorporated relativity with quantum mechanics. Merging the two fields is the holy grail of physics. There are four basic forces of nature, electromagnetism, weak nuclear (released in radioactive decay), strong nuclear (released in nuclear explosions), and gravity. The first three are explained by quantum mechanics, the physics of atomic scale. Gravity is explained by relativity, the physics of large scale that we can see. Finding a quantum theory of gravity would unify relativity and quantum mechanics into “the theory of everything.”
Interestingly enough, despite unifying electromagnetism into quantum mechanics, Feynman was ambivalent about finding the theory of everything…
“Are you looking for the ultimate laws of physics? No, I’m not, I’m just looking to find out more about the world and if it turns out there is a simple ultimate law which explains everything, so be it, that would be very nice to discover. If it turns out it’s like an onion with millions of layers and we’re just sick and tired of looking at the layers, then that’s the way it is, but whatever way it comes out its nature is there and she’s going to come out the way she is, and therefore when we go to investigate it we shouldn’t pre-decide what it is we’re trying to do except to try to find out more about it.” – Richard Feynman from The Pleasure of Finding Things Out.
A decade later, around the time he was awarded the Nobel Prize, Feynman found himself in Buffalo once again and paid the Alibi Room a visit. His former adversaries were nowhere to be found. What would have happened if he had bumped into them again? Knowing Buffalo, and that generation, they probably would have bought Feynman a beer (or a Black and White) and had a good laugh.
This time around Feynman found the scene different, describing the formally posh bar and neighborhood as seedy. During the 1950’s, in Buffalo and across America, the middle-class fled the cities for the ranch houses and shopping malls in suburbia. The downtown stores started to close and buildings became vacant. Chippewa St. was on its way to becoming a red light district populated with flop houses, topless bars, and adult book stores. The street reached its nadir in the 1970’s.
Oddly enough, there was an optical lab located on Chippewa during the ’70’s. How do I know this? Before the age of one hour glasses, a repair job for broken glasses could take a week or more. After breaking my glasses in 6th grade, my eye doctor suggested I take them directly to the lab on Chippewa for a quick repair. I hopped on the No. 24 bus, got off at the foot of Chippewa, and headed for the Root Building where the lab was located. This was intriguing as Chippewa was the focal point for much of our middle school humor, but my trip was uneventful. I walked by the Alibi Room without taking note, unaware a Noble Prize physicist once hung out there. Got my glasses back, walked back past the forlorn Chippewa storefronts, noting how much the street resembled the ones television detective Baretta worked.
By the late ’70’s, the Alibi Room changed owners and was now operated as the New Alibi Lounge. I was not able to find any images of the original Alibi Room, given the going ons inside, I imagine photography would have been frowned upon. One image does survive from 1980 which shows the overall decline of the area Feynman commented on.
Within a few years, all the buildings, including the former Alibi Room, would be gone. Cleared out in an urban renewal project, this block was an empty lot for most of the ’80’s when Feynman wrote Surely Your Joking, Mr. Feynman! The book was a best seller and Feynman became even more well known to the public as a member of the commission to investigate the Challenger disaster. It was Feynman who demonstrated to the public how the O-rings in the shuttle’s solid booster would have become brittle during the cold weather conditions the Challenger launched in.
Feynman passed away in 1988. At the same time, Fountain Plaza was rising on the former site of the Alibi Room. Once home to local banking operations, Fountain Plaza is now the site of IBM’s Buffalo Innovation Center as part of the continuing transition of the local economy.
Throughout the 1990’s, Chippewa and the surrounding Theater District experienced a renaissance. Mark Goldman got the ball rolling with the Calumet Arts Cafe, also played a key role in the development of Canalside. The Root Building is now home to Emerson Commons, part of Emerson High’s Culinary program. Once again, Chippewa is an entertainment center in the city.
Beyond physics, Feynman’s legacy continues in education. During a stint on California’s Curriculum Commission, Feynman was critical of common educational techniques. For example, rather than emphasize memorization, Feynman pushed for comprehension of physical concepts. Feynman also wanted children to understand there are a variety of ways to solve mathematical problems. His reasoning is that scientists focus on getting the right answer, not a rote process. This is the underpinning of common core curriculum.
Common core is part of an overhaul to move education away from being geared toward the old industrial economy to one more suited for the 21st Century. During the early 1900’s, rural residents moved to cities as farming became mechanized, reducing the need for labor. The educational system was geared to train students for life in the manufacturing economy. Now, 100 years later, manufacturing is becoming more robotized, meaning labor has to switch over to a knowledge based economy. Feynman’s insights from his stint evaluating textbooks in the 1960’s influences science education to this day.
Last summer, a friend visited Buffalo and arrived at a downtown hotel. She asked the staff where was a good spot to eat. Like Richard Feynman some 70 years earlier, was suggested to go to Chippewa St. Upon arrival, she witnessed a bar brawl that had extended out onto the sidewalk.
The more things change…
*Image atop post is Richard Feynman giving a lecture on planetary orbits in 1964. Credit: United States Department of Energy/Wiki Commons.
With some 60,000,000 votes tallied for Trump, I am aware there are among those votes diverse motivations. Many voted for Trump in the hope he would focus on the revival of the manufacturing sector. If I thought his policy team would prioritize pushing unemployment down to 4%, offer more access to trade school/college for retraining, and so on, I would not have written this post. However, there is no denying the racist tone of the Trump campaign and its negative effect on the nation. This post is specifically geared towards that aspect of the upcoming Trump presidency.
With the election over and the surprise result in, the punditry is engaged in a fit of self-examination over the lack of understanding of the “forgotten” white working class. This ongoing media tragicomedy includes proposed Marlin Perkins type forays into the heartland. Like many disasters, this one has a confluence of causes. The Northern racial aspect of the Trump campaign, as in the South, has its origins in labor history. While in the South racial antipathy has its roots in slavery, in the North its roots are in market competition, or elimination thereof.
In 2016, when we apply for a job, we put together a resume with our job experience, education, and accomplishments. In the old industrial economy, social/political machine connections played an oversized role. In Buffalo, various ethnic groups lived in insular neighborhoods. The Polish lived on the East Side, Irish on the South Side, and Italians on the West Side. These ethnic groups would come to dominate certain industries such as the Irish on the waterfront. How do you keep the other ethnic groups out? You assign them inferior status using ethnic slurs and stereotypes are part of the enforcement mechanism.
While these various groups would bump up against each other from time to time, they formed an equilibrium in a region that was growing in jobs and population. The great migration of African-Americans from the South during the 1950’s and 60’s was on a local scale, regarded as a competitive threat much like current immigration is viewed nationally among the white working class. From 1940-70, Buffalo’s African-American population grew from 18,000 to 72,000. Some found good paying jobs in manufacturing, but most were locked out of the job market and the housing market as well due to redlining. I recall the reaction in my white working class neighborhood when the first black family moved in during the mid-70’s. Pamphlets with, from what we would call today Alt-Right, were passed around with swastikas.
Swastikas, even in that difficult situation, were considered outside the norm. There were plenty of World War II veterans still alive at the time. However, a strong and violent reaction ensued necessitating a police car stationed outside the house 24 hours a day. About a year or so later, the family moved out. This was around the same time the industrial economy began to falter intensifying the competition for jobs.
The public (but not catholic) educational system specialized in class replication. That is, preparing us for a life employed in manufacturing. One morning, delivering the old Courier-Express, the headlines announced 5,000 layoffs at Bethlehem Steel. During the same day, I attended a shop class that presented a lecture on the basics of steel making. Even though it was obvious the manufacturing ship was sinking, the inertia of the educational system kept moving forward like the Titanic until it hit the iceberg.
Class replication was also enforced outside the school system. For some, who attended high school on the college track, could be met with an onslaught of slurs from both friends and family. It was not uncommon for some who received offers to attend college prep high schools to turn it down for that reason. I think of this often when I hear of working class rage against the educational elite. How many working class kids from that era could have escaped the economic trap of the post-industrial age in a different setting?
As an adult, you realize the verbal abuse slung around was simply from people who had little control of their lives and this was one way for them to exercise power. Real small-minded stuff. However, for a teenager, it can difficult to navigate that storm.
When discussing the working class today, those cultural mechanisms are still in place. While the ethnic neighborhoods have by and large dissipated and merged into a single white self-identity, the reflex to discriminate against African-Americans (the way Muslim is now used as an epitaph is an euphemism for the n-word) and newer immigrants still exists. And that includes many who have since exited the working class. Even if one is not a racist, and many in the white working class are not, you still benefit economically within the confines of this system. What the Trump campaign has done is expand the norms how such discrimination is discussed.
The first time I ventured into Queens during the mid-eighties, it bore a striking resemblance to Buffalo. The biggest difference is Queens was more light manufacturing rather than heavy manufacturing based, but by and large, pretty much working class. The Trump family had left the working class by then and Donald was operating in Manhattan, but as the campaign showed, he still understood the racial buttons to push. However, unlike past candidates who used dog whistles (states rights, welfare, etc,) Trump, being Trump, used a bullhorn.
Throughout the campaign nebulous ties were established with the Alt-Right. During the aforementioned Buffalo neighborhood incident, the hate groups spewing swastika laced pamphlets were considered cranks with just a single neighborhood bookstore operation. Even in a racial situation that was pretty tense. Now those same type of groups have a link to the Oval Office. And the effect is rippling down to the ground level with increased attacks on minority/immigrant communities. Certainly, many in the white working class do not embrace this, but it’s undeniable racism permeates our society and those who do embrace/ignore this drove the rise of Trump to the presidency.
However, what succeeded decades ago within the confines of insular neighborhoods for the white working class to secure employment and resources by eliminating competition will fail on a national level. The opposition is too great (Hillary Clinton drew 2 million more votes than Trump). In a flip-flop of historical trends, resistance to discrimination on the ground level will blunt the federal government. Trump’s trade policy, as outlined in another post, will not bring 1955 back. At any rate, with telecommuting, neighborhoods do not geographically tie down jobs as they once did. Paul Ryan, public university graduate/Ayn Rand fanboy, wants to scale back Medicare which strikes at the core of the Trump base. While manufacturing jobs have actually increased by 800,000 nationally since 2010 and are expected to rise 17,000 locally the next five years, will the Trump administration address age discrimination or skill training required for older whites to be hired for these jobs? Does not seem likely. Meanwhile, America will continue its inexorable change into a more diverse society.
Personally, I find this change refreshing. Why would I want to be locked in the social norms of a particular ethnic group? I’d rather choose my own destiny. There is a cliche that the white working class votes against its own interest. On a macro scale that can be true. On a micro scale, some individuals view the ability to discriminate (or to be non-PC) as protecting their economic safe space. What has happened is that space is growing smaller by the day and will continue to do so.
This election was not about inducing change but avoiding it. And avoiding that change, regardless who is president, is not possible. A common comeback from the most strident Trump supporters is “F*** you, we won.” It’s the same yelp I heard decades ago from those who had little power in their lives. The reality is, by insulating one’s self to change, you risk being left behind. And that’s not the direction to go, either personally or the nation as a whole.
During my days as an Econ major, one of my professors used to admonish us that even if an economic doctrine was outdated, if it had any staying power, some part of it most likely was insightful. That is, don’t be so quick to put it up on a shelf and label as 100% toxic. In this spirit, I am going to take a look at Donald Trump’s (And taking Trump in this spirit becomes more difficult with each passing day) ideas on trade and how it would apply to my hometown of Buffalo. While visiting us this summer, Trump promised to bring tons of jobs back to Buffalo by renegotiating international trade treaties. While most of Trump’s speech was a meandering stream of consciousness, this line resonated with the crowd in a city that is finally starting to turn things around after decades of manufacturing job losses. Could such a policy bring back jobs to the working class in Buffalo?
It is said that success has many parents while failure is an orphan. Actually, as we’ll find out, economic successes and failures both have many parents. Both are a result of several factors coalescing together and it is unlikely a policy fixating on a single issue can change the momentum of one or the other.
In 1954, Buffalo had 152,000 manufacturing jobs. Prior to the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, Great Lakes freighters unloaded in Buffalo to transfer goods into canal boats and later trains for shipment to the East Coast. This made Buffalo a strategic spot for manufactures to locate. In the 1800’s, grain came from the Midwest and was milled into various food products in Buffalo. To process the large amounts of grain pouring into Buffalo Harbor, Joseph Dart invented the grain elevator. These large structures remain a prominent feature on the city’s waterfront.
After the Erie Canal, trains, and grain, came electricity. Nikola Tesla, leaving the employ of Thomas Edison, built with George Westinghouse the first hydroelectric plant in Niagara Falls. Using alternating current which, unlike Edison’s direct current, did not require power plants every mile, this electricity could be delivered 20 miles south to Buffalo. Buffalo became the “City of Light” and this new technology was featured prominently in the 1901 Pan-American Exposition.
At the same time of the Pan-American Exposition, land was being acquired south of Buffalo by the Lackawanna Steel Corp. Buffalo was close to ore fields that supplied raw material and with cheap hydroelectricity along with access to Great Lakes shipping and Buffalo’s extensive rail network, this was an ideal spot for steel production. By World War II, then known as Bethlehem Steel, the plant employed over 20,000 people. The local steel production capabilities attracted the auto industry. Some, like Pierce-Arrow did not last past the 1930’s, but Chevrolet and Ford became mainstays and employed thousands in several plants across the region. In 1916, Glenn Curtiss moved his aviation production plant from Hammondsport in the Finger Lakes to Buffalo. During the first half of the 20th Century, Buffalo was major hub for aircraft production with employment hitting 70,000 (about the same number Apple employs in the U.S.) during World War II. Buffalo’s industrial development was a classic case of economic geographical clustering.
Geographic clustering of economic activity was addressed by Alfred Marshall in 1890 and as a theory, was dormant for another century until economists, especially Paul Krugman, gave it another look. In particular, it was found the manufacturing sector benefits greatly from clustering while for the post-industrial economy the effects are more diffuse. In the case of Buffalo, clustering was caused by access to transportation via canal, trains, and the Great Lakes connecting the Midwest and East Coast. In 1950, half the population of the United States lived in a 500 mile radius from Buffalo providing a ready market for goods. Niagara Falls presented a bottleneck that forced shipments to funnel through Buffalo Being first also counts and the invention of the grain elevator, generation of AC current, and aviation production at the birth of the industry gave Buffalo a jump start. Labor poured into the region both in the form of immigration and internal migration from rural areas. The concentration of experienced labor also produces high productivity from knowledge spillovers as less experienced labor benefits from close proximity to more skilled workers. This in turn can generate high wages when the labor market is competitive and in good bargaining position.
In 1951, Fortune featured a cover story titled Made in Buffalo which described a dynamic and diverse manufacturing center.
How did it all unwind?
Again, many factors coalesced to produce Buffalo’s downward spiral. In 1938, when the local auto industry began shifting from auto to component assembly, Bethlehem Steel would stop investing in its flat rolling capacity due to lack of demand. After World War II, Curtiss-Wright laid off 35,000 workers and then left Buffalo for good in 1946 for Ohio. Bell Aircraft also greatly downsized but stuck around long enough to build Chuck Yeager’s X-1 and the Apollo program’s lunar module simulator. Eventually, Bell left for Texas in the 1960’s. Other industries, for example, Westinghouse and Western Electric picked up the slack. That was something Alfred Marshall would have predicted fifty years prior:
“A district which is dependent chiefly on one industry is liable to extreme depression, in case of a falling-off in the demand for its produce, or of a failure in the supply of the raw material which it uses. This evil again is in a great measure avoided by those large towns or large industrial districts in which several distinct industries are strongly developed.”
However, an infrastructure project in the 1950’s removed Buffalo strategic bottleneck location for transportation.
The completion of the St. Lawrence Seaway enabled shipping to bypass Buffalo and head directly to the East Coast or overseas. Grain shipments dropped dramatically and many of the waterfront elevators were abandoned. Still, the steel and auto industries were going strong. Buffalo continued to grow and prosper along with the rest of the nation into the 1960’s, but the reduced diversity of the economy left the region increasingly vulnerable to economic shocks.
The energy crisis during the 1970’s sparked a demand for smaller cars which Japanese auto-makers specialized in. This reduced demand for products made in Buffalo’s auto plants and in turn, its steel mills. Bethlehem Steel poured investments into its Indiana plant which was closer to the expanding population westward. Poor labor relations, outdated production methods, and questionable management practices dropped Bethlehem’s employment from 22,000 in 1969 to 5,000 when finally closed in 1983. Republic Steel, once home to 5,000 employees followed suit in 1984. In 1985, Trico moved 1,000 jobs from Buffalo to Mexico where workers made less than $1 an hour. As manufacturing de-clustered from Buffalo, the region became less and less attractive to locate.
And what is the point of this history?
This all happened before NAFTA went into effect in 1994. Renegotiating NAFTA will not undo all the factors that drove manufacturing jobs from Buffalo. This isn’t to say the matter should not be open to debate. Personally, I do not believe nations with widespread child labor and lax environmental regulation should have unfettered access to American markets. But a reworking of NAFTA will not magically bring jobs back to Buffalo. In fact, it would likely hamper access to the 9 million Toronto-Niagara Peninsula market just across the border. Given that Canada is America’s top trading partner in terms of exports, renegotiating NAFTA would definitely cost jobs in Buffalo while the benefits are at best, uncertain.
And this brings up the greatest flaw in the Trump plan, fixating on a single issue as an economic cure. Typically, you’ll see this with taxes, most recently in Kansas. Gov. Sam Brownback’s tax cuts were intended to entice business into the state. Whatever enticement the tax cuts were to bring business in the state have been offset by cuts to education and infrastructure spending. The latter reduces incentive for business to locate to Kansas. Or take a look at New York City where residents have had to pay a city income tax in addition to state taxes since 1966. During this period New York City has experienced a decade (1970’s) where it lost 800,000 residents but also has gained 1.1 million residents since 1990. Taxes should be considered as a factor in economic policy, but it is not a sole determinant of economic growth. And neither is trade.
Conversely, economic models tend to smooth over the rocky transition from employment in one economic sector to another. What is happening to manufacturing in America is to some extent the same thing that happened to farming in the first half of the 20th Century. In 1920, farmers were 30% of the American population. Today, that figure is two percent. Mechanization of farming has reduced the need for labor. The same is true of manufacturing. The days when a steel mill required tens of thousands of employees are over, leading to a migration of labor to low paying service sector jobs. In academia or policy think tanks, this transition is often reduced to a mathematical abstraction. Hopefully, the work of Angus Deaton, whose research has revealed a decline in life expectancy of working class white Americans, will provide some “ground truth” for economic models.
The cause of that decline in life expectancy is mostly related to alcohol and drug abuse. For those of us on the ground level have certainly seen this in the struggle of economic transition. Other parts of the equation are foreclosures, divorce, social isolation, and in the worst case scenario, suicide. So what is the proper policy response? You have to try a lot of things across several fronts. And going into this, an understanding this will be a trial and error process. Not everything tried will succeed. Like any sort of forecasting, we are looking at probabilities of success.
On a national level, a fiscal/monetary policy goal of driving unemployment down to 4% should have highest priority. This will make local efforts more manageable. Pragmatism should have a priority over ideology in policy making. The private and public sector are like air and gas in an auto engine. An optimal mixture provides best performance. On a state level, stop the starvation of public funding for state universities. For those who do not go to college, open up access to skilled trade/technical training. While the labor market has improved significantly since 2008, those who were ejected from the workforce have had difficulty with re-entry and unemployment duration remains at post-war highs. Individuals who have lost jobs due to a financial crisis not of their making should not be treated as pariahs in the job market. This will not remove from the political process the more unseemly aspects of the Trump campaign, but will ideally push it off to the sidelines where it belongs.
Over the past few years, Buffalo has undergone something of a renaissance. The University of Buffalo’s new medical campus is spurring development in the city. Immigrants and refugees are infusing new life to old neighborhoods while Elon Musk’s SolarCity is building the Western Hemisphere’s largest solar panel plant on the site where Republic Steel once resided. Hopefully, this can give the region a jump start in an emergent industry and begin a clustering effect anew. Although manufacturing has declined to 50,000 jobs in the area, ghosts of Buffalo’s past can still be seen. The steel mills are gone but Chevy and Ford still employ thousands, if you hang out in Canalside long enough, eventually you’ll see a 700-foot lake freighter making a visit to one of the grain elevators still in operation, no longer the second largest rail center in the nation, on a quiet weekend morning I can still hear train activity in the Frontier Yard. Powerful reminders of Buffalo’s past, but as an individuals, we need to look towards the future. To quote an old Clint Eastwood character:
“You improvise, you adapt, you overcome.”
It’s as good advice as any.
*Photo atop post is 2010 aerial view of Buffalo. Credit: Doc Searls/Wiki Commons.