Sundry Anecdotal Evidence That Things are Really, Really Bad (and We Must Be Good)

Yesterday, in an historically upwardly mobile local neighborhood,  I talked with a women who had stopped to load a broken air conditioner into her car.

“Need help?”

“I think I got it.”  She was struggling. “I’m going to recycle this.  They always say whenever you see an air conditioner out for garbage, grab it.”

“You’re going to take it to scrap?”


“How much is scrap going for these days?”

“I don’t know. I got 15 yesterday for little odds and ends.  And this is heavy.  I need everything I can get. I have cancer.  I can only work 2 or 3 hours a day.”

I didn’t ask if she had insurance.


Yesterday, Amazon papered the Lehigh Valley in “come work for us” post cards.  There’s just one problem with that.

Last night, I heard the Executive Director of Turning Point, a regional shelter, counseling, and advocacy organization for survivors of domestic violence/partner abuse say that this year, demand for services has increased 40%.  This was in response to a question from another non-profit director about possible correlations between the continually failing economy and increased instances of domestic abuse.


A few hours ago, I found out about Hallmark’s new line of job-loss sympathy cards.  They are selling well.


A few minutes later, I saw that infographic showing the percentage of Americans who are millionaire (1 percent) vs. the percentage of Congress with that kind of wealth (50).


Things are really, really, and I mean really bad.


Thank God for good things like this:



Things are bad. But we can be good.  Quite simply, we must.

In Allentown, Sustainabilty Can Be the New Cement, the New Silk, the New Steel. It Can Even Be the New Hess’s.

Totally a salamander.

If you were into civics as a kid, “gerrymandering” is one of the words you learned in 10th grade and still remember. You probably even remember the practice’s namesake, Elbridge Gerry, and that he endorsed the creation of oddly-shaped voting districts that favored his political party in the early days of the Republic.  The practice produced a cartographic chimera of sorts, the so-called Gerry-mander, and the practical side American political science began in earnest.  For all the time they must have spent outside, you’d think that early 19-century Americans would have known that salamanders don’t have wings but do have arms.

Today, I came across a map of Allentown that Damien Brown edited to show the city’s different sections (East Side, Center City, Downtown, South Side/South Allentown, and West End):

Now, if you live in Allentown, you know that a small pocket of South Whitehall Township (those white polygons) cuts into the West End on the east side of Cedar Crest Boulevard from Washington Street to Parkway.  A closer look:

What’s the story here? What political machinations are afoot??? Just the long-term visioneering of Allentown industrialist Gen. Harry C. Trexler, patron of the Allentown Parks System, the Golf Course, the Trexler Nature Preserve and lots of other things we take granted.  The space that is now Trexler Park was, before his death, a family summer estate in South Whitehall Township.  This land and the land immediately around it (including the Golf Course) only became part of the city because of Trexler’s work and generosity.

Longtime Lehigh Valley residents know most of this already. What I didn’t know: Trexler is probably also responsible for preserving the Lehigh Valley’s home-rule culture.  His mistrust of Philadelphian power (antagonistic as it was to the Lehigh Valley’s Pennsylvania Germans) led him to champion the development of a regionally-based economy.  It makes me stop and think: even as we recall Allentown’s decline from unique, mid-sized, industrial and commercial base of economic power to a city searching for a new identity and a sustainable economy of the future, if not for Trexler, the plus side of the Lehigh Valley’s history might not have happened at all.

In pioneers like Trexler and, later, the Rodale family, the Lehigh Valley has fine models for conservation and sustainable business.  Even though the national economy is groaning, it is also greening.  100 years ago, Trexler and others converted a vacant, run-down city lot into what we know today as West Park.  Leaders from all aspects of Allentown’s public life need to keep taking these cues and continue embracing the opportunities financial trouble brings.  If we need to build, we must (and can) build sustainably.  If we need to tear down, we can do it beautifully. I imagine a city that is increasingly walkable in all quarters, and one where junked lots and vacant parking lots become a patchwork of parks and public spaces.

No one knows how long the current economic crisis will continue.  What we do know is this:  the days of retail excess are over, and rising generations want walkable, bikable, beautiful urban spaces in which to live and work and spend.  We want sustainable, hyper-local options, we want good news for the city and we want to be part of that transition.

On a long enough timeline, chronically closed spaces will green themselves, but cities across the country are starting from scratch with new sustainable ethics and visions. Thankfully, we don’t have to start from square one.  If stakeholders are committed, our region, led by our cities, can be a national example of the new economy even it was once a beacon of the old.  And unlike silk or steel or cement or retail, sustainability is a business for all times and all seasons.

The Depression Was Real (See Color Photos); Whatever We’re Having Now is Worse (See CBSNews)

Yesterday, I saw this piece on the CBS Evening News website:

The crux: “About 6.2 million Americans, 45.1 percent of all unemployed workers in this country, have been jobless for more than six months – a higher percentage than during the Great Depression.” Read the rest here.

A few moments ago, I came across (again) a now-famous set of rare, full-color photos from The Depression, here.  I find these so striking.  Have you ever read the Calvin and Hobbes strip where Calvin asks his dad why old pictures are in black and white and new ones are in color?  If you have, you probably haven’t forgotten his dad’s answer:  “no, son, you see, back then the whole WORLD was actually in black and white.”  Calvin’s dad was a jerk like that.  But if you were born after color film became commonplace, doesn’t it sort of feel a little bit like that?  Everything before the 60s was black and white.  The 70s are yellow, matte, grainy.  The 80s are glossy, possibly Polaroid. The 90s tread water until digital cameras became more affordable.

To people like me, the these Depression pictures look almost too real to be real.  But they are real, and so was the Depression.  It was suffered through and overcome by real working people with full-color lives of depth and contrast.

When I began my MFA program in the fall of 2009, I had just seen the Depression pictures for the first time via Photo District News.  On the night of my New School orientation, there was an impressive photo exhibit exploring the many facets of the  American Dream on the large wall at the front of the room.   From my seat in one of the middle rows, I could tell that one of the photos was from this same set.  This is my picture of the exhibit’s picture of the Whinery family, homesteaders in Pie Town, New Mexico, 1940 by Russell Lee:

I wrote at the time about feeling a haunted kind of reverence for these homesteaders, for places like Pie Town, circumstances seemingly ripped from the 19th century and put back to work like old parents, like some Giving Tree. And there are the connections these images conjure to the grandparents and greatgrandparents of people my age, that generation that raised us on Depression stories.  Isn’t there something in the things people do because they have to that makes you feel like you’ve stumbled into sacred space? Were people’s faces just more honest then, or do we always look like this when there’s no reason to pretend things aren’t exactly what they are?  I don’t know, but I see something holy there.  And, behind it, hope.

And here we are again, with bad and worsening economic news, horrendous unemployment numbers, the worst housing market for sellers since this crash started.  You’ve heard this thing we’re in called The Great Recession, and I’ll leave it others to say if we’re not just kidding ourselves.  Whatever it is, it’s real and in color.  Its subjects are on the brink.  Some day, our grandchildren will curate blog posts and HD videos about what they will be calling The Second Great Depression, and they’ll look for the same steely resolve you see linked above.  I don’t know if they’ll find it.  As a society, we’re so hooked on excess.

If there’s hope behind the picture of 2011 and forward, it’s in the sustainability movements still gaining steam.  It’s in sustainable design and infrastructure, in localism, and in alternative, appropriate transportation. It’s in dialing back our consumption, investing in kids and communities and eschewing status symbols and status quos.  We need the full-color resolve of those old days, and we need leaders who will call us to conservation, compassion, community.


See also:

Beat Your Strip Malls Into Greenspace” at The Daily Cocca