Technology, History, and Travel

Category: USA (Page 1 of 5)

Benjamin Franklin Bridge

Farewell factories, hello luxury lofts

Industry in North America has changed enormously in the seven decades since World War II. Manufacturing has moved away from the industrial heartland of the northeastern and midwestern United States and eastern Canada, to other parts of the continent or overseas.

This process is commonly referred to as deindustrialization. I don’t like this term, because it seems to imply that the industrial revolution has somehow ended and moved on from a region or a country. Nothing could be further from the truth, at least not in the case of North America. The ex-industrial heartland of North America still has plenty of manufacturing—Ford Motor Company still has an enormous operation in Dearborn, Michigan, for example—and people living there continue to live by the clock, consume large amounts of energy, and use manufactured goods. The United States is no longer the world’s leader in manufacturing, but it holds the second place with a very comfortable lead over third-place Japan.

Yet even if the term deindustrialization is misleading, its effects are real enough. The closing down of a major operation in an industrial town can be traumatic, as the town loses a major source of tax revenue and the employees lose their jobs and union wages. The effect of industrial relocation is portrayed in a memorable (if maudlin) way in Michael Moore’s 1989 debut film Roger & Me.

Another example of industrial relocation appears in a book I read way back in my first semester of grad school: Capital Moves: RCA’s Seventy-Year Quest for Cheap Labor, by Jefferson Cowie. The book describes how the Radio Corporation of America moved its manufacturing from New Jersey to Indiana, Tennessee (briefly), and finally northern Mexico.

RCA made some of the twentieth century’s most popular consumer electronics products, radios and televisions. At its peak, it was one of most profitable companies in the country. Thirty Rockefeller Plaza in Midtown Manhattan, now called the Comcast Building, was originally named the RCA Building.

RCA opened its first factory in 1929 in Camden, New Jersey, just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. The factory produced radios, the hottest consumer electronic product of its day. Management had hoped that the largely female workforce of the factory would not be interested in unionization. When the workers did unionize after a four-week strike—and with help from Depression-era labor legislation known as the Wagner Act—management decided to set up a new facility with a new, non-unionized workforce in Bloomington, Indiana, in 1940. Over time, as RCA and other industries left Camden, the former industrial tracts of the city turned into a desolate wasteland of boarded-up factories.

At length, and after a short but failed venture in Memphis, Tennessee, RCA moved its manufacturing of consumer electronics out of the United States entirely, and across the border to Ciudad Juárez in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua. The RCA operation in Bloomington finally closed down in 1998, after the laserdisc players manufactured there had failed to become popular.

Two months ago, I went to a conference in Philadelphia, and out of curiosity I skipped a few sessions and rode a train across the Delaware to check out the remains of RCA’s industrial empire in Camden. Like many cities in the old industrial heartland of North America, Camden is slowly being redeveloped, its old factories and warehouses being torn down or converted to new uses.

RCA Building #17 still stands tall above Camden, its ten-story tower visible from parts of Philadelphia. In 2003, it was converted into apartments, with some commercial space on the ground floor.

RCA Building #17 in its new incarnation as a luxury apartment building.

RCA Building #17 in its new incarnation as a luxury apartment building.

Detail of the tower of the RCA factory, with the company's logo in stained glass.

Detail of the tower of the RCA factory, with the company’s logo in stained glass.

Awning of The Victor, as the building has been rebranded.

Awning of The Victor, as the building has been rebranded.

Plaque on The Victor.

Plaque on The Victor.

I am glad that the RCA factory was saved from the wrecking ball, although I wonder if the redevelopers could have come up with more creative uses for the building. As RCA Building #17 and its neighbors are transformed from boarded-up shells to luxury lofts, Camden is leaping from one urban crisis to another. The new urban crisis is caused by ballooning property values that make the city classist and segregated.

This is not a problem that I can solve in this short blog post—or anywhere. But it is something that should give pause to the redevelopers of old urban industrial sites.

New luxury lofts in the works in Camden.

New luxury lofts in the works in Camden.

Brooklyn Bridges pan

Exploring Brooklyn’s battlefield

In 2014, I spent part of the summer in Washington, DC, researching for my dissertation at the National Archives and Library of Congress. On weekends and some afternoons, I explored the city and surrounding region, and I even made longer trips to Pennsylvania and New York. As I traveled around, I kept running across sites or artifacts associated with the American Revolutionary War. The more I saw and read about the Revolution, the more I became aware of how little I knew about that part of history.

I made up my mind to read The Glorious Cause, by Robert Middlekauff, the volume of the Oxford History of the United States about the Revolution. The book is long, so it took me a while (I had to take a lengthy break in the middle), but it was worth reading, because I learned much that I, as a historian of the twentieth century, had never before had occasion to learn. (Since my fateful summer of 2014, interest in the Revolutionary War has gone mainstream, thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda and Hamilton.)

While reading The Glorious Cause, I was particularly fascinated by Middlekauff’s narrative of the Battle of Long Island, also known as the Battle of Brooklyn—an engagement I had never heard of before. The Battle of Brooklyn (August 26-30, 1776) was the first major military engagement of the American Revolution after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence two months earlier. British troops, under the command of General William Howe, landed on Long Island and attacked the Americans under George Washington. (These events are covered in the Hamilton song “Right-hand Man.”) The American forces were protected behind the hills known as the Heights. The passes nearest the American positions in Brooklyn (then a village independent of Manhattan) were well defended, but the British circumvented the defenses by taking the lightly-defended Jamaica Pass to the east. A contingent of Marylanders died holding the main body of the British troops off at the Vechte farm, but most of the rest of Washington’s army escaped across the East River to Manhattan, surviving to fight another day.

In the 240 years since the battle, Brooklyn has grown to engulf the farmlands and woodlands where British and Continentals clashed. Scattered around the borough are sites associated with the battle, some marked with plaques, others not (but all listed in detail in this comprehensive guide). In addition to gentrified brownstones, hipster lofts, and forbidding project housing, Brooklyn has its own Revolutionary War battlefield. Brooklyn has it all.

In March this year, I spent a day exploring Brooklyn, looking for sites that had to do with the battle or the Revolution in general. I found two sites particularly interesting.

The first was Prospect Park, site of a pass where American troops were routed by Hessian mercenaries fighting on the British side. The park, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead (whose other credits include Central Park in Manhattan and the US Capitol grounds) preserves part of the landscape of the battlefield, which has been lost under buildings and streets most everywhere else in the borough.

On a hillside in the park stands a monument to “Maryland’s Four Hundred,” who fell holding back the British (or “saved the American army,” in the exaggerated wording of the monument). The mention of the number of Marylanders is a not-so-subtle reference to the Three Hundred Spartans, who held the Persian army off at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC, while the armies of other Greek city-states escaped to regroup and ultimately defeat the Persians. The placement of the monument to 400 Marylanders in the park, near the battle pass, is another reference to Thermopylae, because the Spartans died defending a pass. But despite the monument’s claim that the Marylanders performed their great deed “on this battlefield,” they did not fight in a pass; they fought on a farm, more than a mile from the monument.

Memorial to "Maryland's Four Hundred" in Prospect Park, Brooklyn.

Memorial to “Maryland’s Four Hundred” in Prospect Park, Brooklyn.

Misleading inscription on the memorial to "Maryland's Four Hundred."

Misleading inscription on the memorial to “Maryland’s Four Hundred.”

The site of that farm is the other especially interesting site related to the Battle of Brooklyn. The old farm is also a park—not a grand park like Prospect, but a small municipal park with a playground and athletic fields. In the middle of the park stands the Old Stone House. Originally built in 1699, the Vechte Farmhouse went to ruin and was demolished around 1900, but then in the 1930s the stones were dug up and the house reconstructed from drawings. The ground floor contains a small, free museum about the battle and its context.

The reconstructed Vechte farmhouse, Washington Park, Brooklyn.

The reconstructed Vechte farmhouse, Washington Park, Brooklyn.

The Old Stone House isn’t exactly the Vechte Farmhouse that stood there during the battle. It is a twentieth-century building made of seventeenth-century parts. But that doesn’t matter to me. What does matter is that there is plenty of continuity with the past, there and at other sites associated with the Battle of Brooklyn. There may be no national park for the battlefield, as there are for Saratoga and Yorktown. Instead, remnants of the eighteenth-century battle and its memorialization live on in twenty-first-century New York City.

Nepal Himalaya, 2009

The Cold War at 8,848 meters

The summits of the tallest mountains in the world, all of which are located in the great Himalayan range from northeastern India to Pakistan, remained inviolate until the 1950s and early sixties, when all of them were climbed for the first time. In 1950, Annapurna in central Nepal became the first peak higher than 8,000 meters to be climbed (there are fourteen in all) when a French team reached the summit. Next, in 1953, a British expedition reached the top of the highest of them all, Mt. Everest or Chomolungma.1

It was by an accident of timing and geopolitics that these great mountains were first climbed in the fifties and sixties. Major European and American expeditions had made attempts on several of the 8,000-meter peaks in the twenties and thirties, but then the outbreak of World War II put these expeditions to a halt. When they resumed after the war, the Cold War had begun, and the subsequent mountaineering conquests took place in the context of this global struggle of ideologies.

In 1960, the Chinese government launched an expedition on the north side of Mt. Everest, which stands in Tibet. This was the first expedition on the Tibetan side since China had annexed the country in 1950. The government reported that three climbers reached the top of the mountain and left a plaster bust of Chairman Mao there as a memento of their visit. Mountaineers in the West generally doubted that the Chinese party had actually made it to the summit, as the only accounts released were party propaganda with a little mountaineering on the side. (The Chinese summiting is more widely accepted as veritable now.) Whether or not the Chinese climbers really reached the top, the expedition was a geopolitical coup, an assertion of China’s sovereignty over Tibet.

Three years later, a very different expedition attacked Everest from the southern side, through Nepal. This was the American Mount Everest Expedition 1963, or AMEE for short. Well-equipped, well-staffed (with 20 expedition members, 37 high-altitude Sherpas, and 909 porters), and well-funded by donations and government grants, the expedition was also highly-publicized. The expedition leader, Norman Dyhrenfurth, was a cinematographer by trade; he produced a movie about the climb and got Orson Welles to narrate it. One of the six members of the team to reach the summit was National Geographic Society photograph Barry Bishop. The expedition even had its own chronicler, mountaineer-author James Ramsey Ullman, who wrote a piece for Life magazine, the script of Dyhrenfurth’s movie, and a full book, Americans on Everest (which is a good read).

In his official account, Ullman repeatedly emphasized that AMEE’s climbing of Everest was not a nationalistic endeavor. For example, this passage:

The Chinese, on their climb of three years before, had declared that “we thought of Comrade Mao, took strength, and moved onward and upward”; but such sentiment would not do for AMEE. With due respect to our Chief Executive, and due allowance for the politics of the various team members, it is highly doubtful if anyone was climbing Everest for the President of the United States.2

Yet even if the men who actually climbed the mountain did not do so for national glory, the expedition had to present itself in a national context in order to get funding. The American public and government asked: Why climb Mt. Everest? It has already been climbed. To which AMEE replied: Because it has never been climbed by Americans before.

The rhetoric convinced individuals, mountaineering clubs, companies, and the US government to donate $400,000 to the expedition. The State Department funded expedition costs in Nepal with a grant of $82,000 in Indian rupees, which the US government had earned from the sale of American wheat and other agricultural commodities to India under the PL-480 Food for Peace program. The State Department also funded a goodwill tour of selected expedition Sherpas around the United States after the climb.

A great, friendly American expedition to Asia aligned well with then-President John F. Kennedy’s internationalist agenda, which also produced the Peace Corps and USAID. When Kennedy presented the National Geographic Society’s Hubbard Medal to the expedition after the successful climb, he emphasized the international character of Himalayan mountaineering, citing other nations that had preceded the Americans to Everest. But he omitted the Chinese, as China was on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain and this was the Cold War after all.

Nawang Gombu presents a kata scarf to President Kennedy at the ceremony for the presentation of the National Geographic Society Hubbard Medal to members of the American Mount Everest Expedition. (Source: Abbie Rowe, White House Photographs, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.)

Nawang Gombu presents a kata scarf to President Kennedy at the ceremony for the presentation of the National Geographic Society Hubbard Medal to members of the American Mount Everest Expedition. (Source: Abbie Rowe, White House Photographs, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.)

  1. The two actual summiters were Edmund Hillary, a New Zealander, and Tenzing Norgay, a Sherpa from Darjeeling. []
  2. James Ramsey Ullman, Americans on Everest: The Official Account of the Ascent Led by Norman G. Dyhrenfurth (New York: J.B. Lippincott, 1964), 237-38. []

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