Category Archives: American Travel

Another Letter From Vermont: Charles Walker Scholarship Recipient Charlie Pritchard

The Crumbling of the Mountain State

Donald Trump’s promises to bring back coal jobs to West Virginia tapped into sentiment which the dispossessed of West Virginia had longed to hear – that, if only for a few seconds, manual labour could once again occupy a standing of nobility in antithesis to the vexing realm of automation. West Virginia remains a woefully underfunded state – it bears disreputable statistics from the highest obesity rate, the highest smoking rate and the highest level of drug related deaths in the U.S. Throughout the twentieth century, West Virginia had been location of the most intense episodes of industrial strife, testified by such incidents as the Paint Creek Strike of 1912 and the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921. Following the Great Depression and World War II, union activity continued, yet the environmental implications of contemporary struggles have shifted the debate dramatically. The development of mountaintop removal mining practised through automated technology has caused myriad problems for local residents. During the process waste is often disposed into nearby rivers leading to reservoirs, polluting drinking water and causing floods when these blockages break under heavy rainfall.

During the first week of February, myself and a group of Middlebury College students set out for the Appalachian South Folklife Center in the small village of Pipestem to work with local communities and activists and learn the contemporary struggles facing the state. The site is run by Tim, who is originally from Santa Barbara, California, who came to West Virginia during the Civil Rights struggle, where he met Don West, a radical unionist and preacher who founded the ASFC as a hideout for Left dissidents. The ASFC typically receives students from colleges across America during the spring and summer breaks, so our group largely had the Center to ourselves.

 

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Appalachian South Folklife Center

 

Tim teaches music at a local elementary school and can often be found playing the banjo with his wife at an open-mic night in the local town of Princeton. Tim however works intensely at establishing cooperative relationships with community organisations; the Princeton Arts Collective, The Wade Center (a non-profit school for children) and the Bluefield Union Mission (a food bank and community welfare organisation). Tim seemed optimistic about the progress made in Princeton. Once a declining mining town, a group of local artists and musicians organised arts projects to stimulate the town’s economy. Down side alleys, they painted murals, and encouraged contributions from local painters. A common haunt is the Riff-Raff, the bottom floor a shop dealing in sculptures and crafts, and upstairs a club showcasing musical talent in the neighborhood.

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Princeton, West Virginia

 

Much of the ASFC’s work, however, is devoted to home repairs for locals who are unable to afford ordinary repair services, often including households damaged as a result of mountaintop removal mining. The repairman Greg exudes enthusiasm for his job, at being able to work alongside students not only from elsewhere in the US but across the world. ‘Most of the people I get come from around Chicago, but I get people from all over’ he tells us, ‘even from China and Japan’. He set us off repairing the roof of a woman’s trailer which had been damaged from heavy rainfall, which we managed to fix in 5 days.

The next day, Tim introduced us to the Bluefield Union Mission, which donates food and blankets to struggling families. The Union Mission had been functioning since the Great Depression, though its diner dining hall had gradually transformed into take-away shelter. In the rear of the building, the Mission held services and allowed meetings with local activists and trade union leaders. As our group supplied the visitors with food, it was depressing to realise how much work the staff members would have on their hands at times when volunteers were unavailable, work that would go largely unnoticed by local authorities.

Afterwards we met with Tina, an activist who has campaigned vigorously for healthcare rights, though abortion laws in particular are the focus of her efforts. ‘There’s only one place in the state that can offer abortions now’, she tells us. ‘Most cross the state line into Virginia’. With recent Democratic victories like Doug Jones in Alabama, Phil Murphy in New Jersey, Ralph C. Northam in Virginia and especially Danica Roem, the first openly transgender person elected to the Virginia state legislature, she maintains an admirable degree of optimism. When asked about the prospects for Bernie Sanders in 2020, she replied ‘I like Bernie – I think it’s promising that he won more votes than Hillary in West Virginia, but I think we need some new blood’.

On the final day I visited the Wade Center in Bluefields, just a few miles from Pipestem. The Wade Center began as a conventional state school at which Tim formerly taught music. Eventually the school closed and the building was bought up to establish a non-profit school for disadvantaged children. The lack of employment opportunities coupled with opioid addiction leads many parents to delegate their roles as providers to day-care services like the Wade Center. Here, the children are fed in the evening and are given packed dinners to take home with them for the weekends. They also have a space to concentrate on homework given from other schools, and a safe recreational environment, although the playgrounds were mostly out of bounds. When staff members began to find syringes in the grass, they cordoned the space off. There were even bunk-beds where children could sleep for a few nights if they needed to. Nevertheless, In spite of the valuable support the Wade Center offers in every aspect of their lives, the next chapter leaves little reason for optimism for those without reliable home support to prepare them for high school.

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The Wade Center, Bluefield, West Virginia

 

West Virginia is a state forgotten by those who govern it. Governor Jim Justice’s investment in the Russian coal and steel company Mechel using state funds have led to immense debts of $4.6 million which Justice shows little indication of settling in the near future, despite the state’s dire need of reformed infrastructure. Yet discussions of rural poverty in America are overshadowed outside the state – on college campuses and among Northern state activists. The awakening of activists such as Tina have indicated a growing momentum among the formerly disengaged. But we have yet to see a similar awakening in the Northern states – of the disinterested geared into motion with progressives prepared to communicate with senators and party candidates to shape an agenda for a presidential candidate of 2020.

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Book Review: The Strip by Stefan Al

by Danielle Prostrollo

A new book to the library collection is The Strip by Stefan Al. Showcasing the history of the iconic American destination, breaking it down into eras, and delving deep into each casino and hotel’s story. There are photographs that show off each casino, increasingly taller, shinier, and extreme and Al’s writing put each of these casinos into the bigger context of Las Vegas history.

the strip

According to the Al, Las Vegas’ relationship with tourism began with a Wild West phase, resorts styled to look and feel like a frontier town before moving on to the post-War modernist. Innovations were made, such as placing a pool by the casino for leisurely lounging, only to be followed by leisurely gaming in the pool (as was the case at the Sands casino’s floating craps table). This transition was punctuated by the “Big Switch”, the multi-million dollar renovation of the Last Frontier resort into the New Frontier resort. The cowboy image was now in the rear view mirror and the space race was on.

Following this era of change the country, in a frenzy of atomic fever, leapt at the opportunity to partake in mushroom cloud-gazing. Las Vegas was in the right place for the public to make their pilgrimage for a chance to see atomic testing and the city did not waste that opportunity. Providing atomic cocktails and lunch menus, the resorts catered to their clientele. In the 1960s The Strip really started to gain height, with new casinos being built taller and taller. If there was any doubt that the frontier image of the dessert city was dead, this would certainly be it.

Building on the growth of the previous decades, the 1980s saw expansion into hyper-thematic resorts. Treasure Island, Excalibur, and the Luxor were all constructed during this “theme park”-like era. And from the extremes of giant castles and pirate ships, the strip pushed back toward the center focusing on equally enticing flights-of-fancy such as fake beaches, Venetian canals, and world landmarks. Taking the reader into present day, Al talks of the “star-chitect” trend. Recent casinos and resorts have relied on the name recognition of famous architects to bring notoriety and traffic to their destinations.

This book is a great read for anyone interested in American architecture, entertainment, or modern American history.

Find it at the Memorial Library or reserve it here

Check out some of our other recent book reviews here:

Unforgotten New York

Hope in the Dark

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Filed under American Culture, American History, American Travel, Books

Unforgotten New York

By Danielle Prostrollo

 

cover

While everyone is familiar with our biographies of Roosevelt and Lincoln, the monographs of the American Civil War, and our extensive collection of World War II literature, we have a great selection of ‘other’ books that may pique the curious mind. One of these books, which I have been enjoying this week, is Unforgotten New York.

Primarily a photography book, the authors put you on an express train through decades of New York’s infamous club culture. Each entry takes you to a new location, detailing its history and cultural importance with descriptions and photographs as well as a beautifully composed photo of the space as it exists now. Many genre-defining, iconic spaces leave no trace of their former selves – in one case, the current home of a 24-hour grocery store.

This kind of book is easy to overlook, as it looks a bit like a coffee table book to be thumbed through on the sofa of an acquaintance’s house, but this book is as engaging as any historical monograph. Paging through the cultural significance of each spot on the New York City map you begin to realise that the promoters, owners, DJs, and artists involved in each club or venue wanted to create an outlet for the like-minded public – and in so many cases, changed the face of music, art, or even broad entertainment.

You can find Unforgotten New York at the Memorial Library or wherever books are sold.

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Letters From Vermont: Charles Walker Scholarship Recipient Charlie Pritchard

By Charlie Pritchard

A Small Hello From Middlebury

The concept of liberal arts education has only recently become something of a trend amongst British higher education institutions, having taken inspiration from American models, with currently 23 universities offering BA degrees in the subject. The liberal arts in the US however differs in encompassing an institutional ethos rather than focused specialised study. Many are eager to pounce upon this academic regimen with accusations of indulgent elitism over utilitarian value, and to a historical extent, such criticisms are well founded. After all, the Latin root liberalis was inextricable from the concept of nobility, and thus by implication, the liberal arts were subjects worthy only of patricians. Yet despite its isolation, hidden away between the sublime Green Mountains and the Adirondacks in Vermont, Middlebury College has an admirable worldly conscience. Its location instills a concentrated and committed work ethic amongst its student body, which while showing its rewards in university rankings, can take its toll. The curriculum workload is demanding, and yet in spite of its difficulties, its gift takes hold of your intellectual curiosity. Professors set questions provoking fascinating ethic-centred debate among the class with great encouragement with a real pleasure in seeing their students develop. Middlebury gives students time to decide their direction in life – there are many second year students who haven’t yet decided what they are majoring in. The freedom with which students can choose courses from across sciences, humanities and arts is something to be cherished – to my knowledge there is no institution in Britain which compares to such eclecticism.

Towns in Vermont are dominated by their churches. Some towns around Middlebury are worth visiting for their churches alone. The city of Burlington, about 50 miles from the Canadian border, is the closest thing you will get to a metropolis in Vermont. Lazing by the waterfront of Lake Champlain, the centre possesses a modesty combined with smart charm with more coffee shops you can shake a stick at and some great second-hand bookshops full of rare findings.

Burlington

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There are two drinks that keep New Englanders going – coffee and cider. They are serious about their coffee consumption, and with their coffee so cheap, it’s amazing they don’t explode. I remember sitting in a diner in Middlebury town and ordering a coffee for two dollars, and after ten minutes a waitress came round offering free refills. I’d never seen such generosity with coffee. I could almost hear my heart in my ears by the time I came out. Their cider, however, is something that British people might get confused about. New Englanders make a distinction between sweet cider and hard cider, the former being non-alcoholic and the latter being the ‘real stuff’ as it were. I admit my disappointment when college organised events would serve cider and finding that they were in fact only serving sweet cider (I’m missing alcohol, as you can probably tell).

But winter is here now, and I’m currently rejoicing in the hefty snowfall. Here’s some snaps.

Mead Chapel at Middlebury

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Old Chapel at Middlebury

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