Kentwood Water Tower Followup

So just for the record, some links about Ed’s experience photographing the Kentwood water tower.

The original Grand Rapids Press article about it.

Blog reactions:
Here’s my reaction.
Boy with Grenade
NYC Photo Rights
Stormy Webber
The Lonely Goth’s Guide to Independent Catholicism
US Message Board
Topsy’s Twitter Trackbacks
Ubervu
Newsvine
Canon Digital Photography Forums
Boing Boing
Reddit: 1 2, 3, 4
Also on Reddit, the picture that got Ed in trouble.
Flickr Group: Photography is Not a Crime
Slashdot: I submitted this one. Vote it up.
Mark Maynard: There’s a reference near the end of the post.
Cyburbia
The Grand Rapids Flickr group

UPDATE 9/28/10: A couple more…
Urban Planet
Also mentioned in the show notes for No Agenda, the Adam Curry/John Dvorak podcast show, but not in the actual show.
Photography is Not a Crime
Bizarre Confessions

UPDATE 9/29/10:
Commonplace Book

UPDATE 9/30/10:
Todd Boss
What’s Pissed Me Off
Truth and Justice For All
: Warning–includes nudes.

UPDATE 10/9/10:
Network World

Personally, I think it’d be extremely funny if someone were to organize a group of people to photograph the water tower — say about 500 people, all of them wearing name tags.

That’s to make it convenient for the police who would presumably be coming to take their names.

Security or Paranoia? Kentwood’s Water Tower

Ed Heil‘s been a friend of mine since the age of six. It’s pretty much a given then, that I think he’s a decent guy.

Kentwood’s municipal staff haven’t known him as long and apparently weren’t willing to risk the possibility that he wasn’t.

The gist of the situation is that Ed took a picture of Kentwood’s water tower and one of the workers there noticed and asked his name. Ed didn’t believe he had any reason to give his name, and didn’t, but the person (and it sounds like more than one person from the article) followed him into Kentwood’s library and continued to request his name. Eventually he gave it to them.

It’s kind of bizarre.

It reminds me, oddly enough, of being in the Soviet Union as part of a college choir tour.

While we were there, we learned that we were not allowed to take pictures of train stations, and airports. Annoyed by this, I made a point of taking a couple pictures while inside a subway, and one or two of the Moscow airport as we flew away on a KLM jet.

Post 9/11, taking pictures of train stations, airports, and harbors (if I remember correctly) is also discouraged in the United States.

I recognize that there are potential security issues here. In theory, terrorists could strike anywhere. If you protect the big cities, they might go for smaller ones. If you profile people from the Middle East, they’ll use people who look European.

The question is, how far do you go?

Though it’s probably worth worrying about a city’s water supply, is it worth making everyone who takes a picture give their name? More to the point are they making everyone give their name, or do they only do it on a whim?

If they don’t have permanent guards or cameras there, is the water supply really safe?

And if they don’t have guards or cameras, why don’t they?

If it’s because the low level of risk doesn’t justify the expense, one might ask if the level of risk justifies randomly interrogating people with cameras.

If you read the article I linked to, you might find the Kentwood government representatives’ comments interesting.

The mayor states that he’s “proud of” the employee. On the one hand, it’s good that the man takes his job seriously. On the other, essentially what he did was grab some people and try to bully someone into giving his name.

What’s also interesting? The new policy, as of Friday (the day after the incident), is to call the police when you see something suspicious. Don’t do anything yourself.

That’s a good thing in the sense that I’ve got more faith in the police officers’ ability to handle things appropriately than I do in the water department’s staff. It’s not so good in that it means that they’ll potentially be sending out the police to hassle people at the water tower on a semi-regular basis instead of having them go out to solve actual crimes.

In summary…

In situations like this we have to balance personal liberty against public security. My suspicion is that if the solution reminds me of experiences I had while traveling behind the Iron Curtain, we’ve moved too far in the direction of security.

Thinking about Racism

I’ve often thought that the biggest obstacle to getting rid of racism in the United States is our country’s condemnation of it.

Basically no one wants to think of themselves as racist.

That’s understandable because being racist isn’t a good thing. That being said, what’s racism? I don’t mean the definition, but what racism is composed of. It’s a bunch of ideas. That’s all.

Society passes along the ideas not just as deliberate, conscious things but also as unconscious assumptions. Since the Civil Rights movement, very few people deliberately tell their children that minorities are not as good as they are, but it’s easy to pass along that message in subtle ways.

The effect being that people can intellectually believe that no race is better than another, but still get more nervous if they see a bunch of black teenagers walking down the street behind them than they would if they see white teenagers.

In short, we might all be a little racist.

Seriously, Jesse Jackson talked about feeling a little nervous about seeing a few black teens walking on the street.

The trouble is, no one wants to think of themselves that way.

People don’t have gradations of racism. People seem to have a “good vs. evil” sense of what racism is. If you’re not racist, you’re normal. If you are, you’ve got a similar perspective on life to Hitler and the Ku Klux Klan.

I’d suggest a more realistic and more useful perspective might be that almost everybody has an unquestioned racist assumption (or more) hanging out in their minds. For the most part, this doesn’t mean that they’re evil, just normal.

Bringing the level of condemnation down a notch or two might actually allow people to talk about their beliefs and notice when they’re making racist assumptions.

By contrast, I’d argue, the current situation, in which we notice someone’s said something slightly racist, and then criticize them endlessly probably results in them justifying it to themselves, and, not changing anybody’s mind at all.

The Golliwog and Minstrelsy

I’m aware enough about racial issues to know that I sometimes don’t get it. Part of it is not having a personal experience of racism. Part of it is not knowing the historical experience of blacks and other minorities.

I’m linking to a few blog entries by Pam Noles. In her blog “And We Shall March,” she writes about her life and interests, science fiction/fantasy, movies, and sometimes about the intersection of race and fiction.

I don’t know about you, but I’d always wondered where the word “wog” came from. It’s sometimes used by British people to refer to foreigners, but apparently comes from a doll (that also happens to be a racial caricature). Until reading this series of posts, I’d had no idea what the Golliwog was or how it connected to minstrelsy.

1. “When time was things was looking bright / I started to whittle on a stick one night / Who cried out stop now, that’s dynamite / Not a soul.” ***

2. “One white woman, two white girls, twenty five white men dressed up like women, made up to look like black people to entertain other white people.” ***

3. “The greatest decade in the history of mankind is over. And as presuming Ed here has so consistently pointed out, we have failed to paint it black.” ***

4. “I don’t want to have anything to do with anything black for at least a week.”

5. “In this present moment we are either smaller than we were, or else are on our knees.” ***

Get Your Racist Costumes Here…

My kids are looking forward to Halloween. They’ve been spending a lot of time looking through a costume catalog that came in the mail and informing us of what they’re going to be.

As someone who earned the odd graduate degree in sociology, I find that I can’t quite turn off that portion of my brain that automatically analyzes any document that I come across as a cultural artifact.

Hence I couldn’t help but notice that there were no black people in this catalog. After some more browsing I realized that I was wrong and that there actually were black men within its pages. Take a look…

Supa Mac Daddy

Two More Costumes

Fortunately there’s no racism any more or that might be offensive or something.

Weight, Vitamins, and the First World War

Recently I’ve been reading non-fiction books about the daily lives of people in various eras previous to our own. It’s research for my novel. It is interesting in and of itself, but as much as I’m interested in earlier periods, I’m only covering the Victorian era to the present for the simple reason that that’s as early as I have to go to get details related to the story right.

Currently I’m reading a book called Daily Life in the United States 1920-1940: How Americans Lived Through the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression by David E. Kyvig.

It covers some topics that I hadn’t expected to think about. For example, I had been aware that in the Victorian era, the standard of beauty was different. Heaviness was a sign of health. The actress Lillian Russell tipped the scales at 200 pounds and was generally regarded to be beautiful.

I’d wondered how American beliefs about weight happened to change.

From reading Kyvig’s book, it seems to be two major things. First off, it represents a change in the understanding of what good nutrition was. During the Victorian era and before, it was hard enough to get enough food much less to worry about what exactly it would be. Thus, when people had the money to get the food they wanted, the typical American meal was starches and meats.

In the Victorian Era in particular, French food became popular. Later on though, people became more aware of vitamins and the fact that what you ate was as important as the fact that you got full. Thus, they started eating more fruit (more citrus…) and vegetables (particularly green vegetables) while eating less starches (like potatoes) and less red meat. As a result, US citizens grew in height while eating 5% less calories.

In addition to the positive pull of a better understanding of food one also had the negative push of World War I. During the first World War, the government had to ration food. It took advantage of people’s growing understanding of nutrition to encourage people to eat less, actively promoting the idea of being thinner while simultaneously being more healthy.

The reason they did this, of course, was to be able to send more food overseas.

Where once men had been encouraged to be plump as a demonstration of how well off they were, the doughboy became the ideal for men while the flapper became the ideal for women.

An interesting wrinkle in this is that even the clothes of the 20’s and 30’s changed to reflect the new ideals. Where the Victorian era’s clothes were multi-layered, the clothes of the 20’s and 30’s had less layers, creating a slimmer figure. Interestingly, this was also the period where cosmetics began to be commonly used.

So anyway, I could ramble on a bit longer, but I won’t. I do find it an interesting topic though. Expect further commentary on past eras as the mood strikes me.

Jenison Park Mystery (Possibly) Solved

I happened to eat dinner at my parents’ house this Sunday. As my mom was preparing dinner, I told her about the Jenison Park amusement park and about the unnerving name of one of the attractions (“Nigger Baby”).

I mentioned to her that I’d asked the author of the book that the map was in about the attraction’s name. He knew nothing about it. I figured that I’d have to go to one of Holland’s assisted living centers and find someone old enough to have gone to Jenison Park during its heyday.

I may still do that, but I’m not sure that I’ll have to.

Jenison Park isn’t the only place that had that particular attraction. Apparently you could find it in Indiana (where my mom grew up) even into the 1950’s. They had it at carnivals and even at fundraisers for the local Christian school system that my mom went to. In fact once she described it, I realized that you can still find it at carnivals across the nation.

Basically, you had a rack of hinged figures on a wall. You were handed a certain number of balls, and, if you hit enough of the figures over you got a prize.

Since the name of the game was “Nigger Baby,” you would be right to guess that the baby figures that you knocked over with a ball were painted black.

You could never have a game like that now, but as a child my mom never remembered anyone questioning it. Strange to think that something that blatantly racist could be part of the background noise of life. It makes me wonder what we might be doing now that I’ll look back at with shock in the future.

The “Nigger Baby”

Writing a novel involves a degree of research. In this case, research on the city I grew up in–Holland, Michigan.

A trolley system ran through Holland at one point. It had various names. At its longest, it ran from Saugatuck up to Grand Rapids. They’d actually bought the right of way to South Haven. Had they actually built, people would have been able to ride from Holland to Chicago by trolley. Bearing in mind that trolleys could reach 80 mph, this would have been more workable than you might think.

Like many other interurban railways of the period, the trolley system also included an amusement park (Jenison Park–located on the south side of Lake Macatawa near Lake Michigan). This way there would be a built in reason to ride the rails. Grand Rapids’ trolley system included a similar amusement park near Reeds Lake.

Jenison Park included a variety of rides and amusements. They included a roller coaster, merry-go-round, penny arcade, the “House of Trouble” and a few other things. One of the “other things” located next to the House of Trouble is simply labeled “Nigger Baby.”

There are moments in doing any sort of historical research when you read something and realize that things have changed since then. Noticing that for the first time was one of those moments for me.

I didn’t know what that exhibit or event was. I still don’t.

If anyone reading this does, write a comment and let me know.

UPDATE: I may have an answer to this one. See the next post for details.

We’re All Related

In college, I remember hearing that someone had calculated that all humans living today were descended from everyone who lived before 1200 A.D.

That statistician (Joseph Chang) is referenced an article I recently read that points out some flaws in his ideas and mentions that currently statisticians guess that humanity’s most recent common ancestor lived during the Golden Age of Greece (and probably lived in Asia).

The article’s interesting in that it describes the logic and methodology the study followed (to a limited extent) and describes some of the obvious consequences (today’s Klansmen are undoubtedly descended from Africans).