Monday, January 23, 2012

Back to Nicaragua -- Bonus Post 3: Rochelle's Pictures

Church in Leon, near our hostel ©2012 Rochelle Walbridge
Many thanks to Geography of Coffee student Rochelle Walbridge for sharing her photos of our recent journey. This collection (when compared to my photo set from many of the same places) illustrates how people traveling together often see different things, or the same things differently. I very much enjoy this series, and Rochelle's vision as a photographer, and I appreciate her allowing me to share them here.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Back to Nicaragua -- Day 8 La Corona

Note: This post is one in a series of daily posts about my January 2012 return to Nicaragua -- the sixth time I have offered my Geography of Coffee study tour, which becomes more interesting and enjoyable each year.

Everyone who participates in the Geography of Coffee study tour agrees that the home stays with families are the most important part of the journey. In fact, for the first program in 2006, it was only this part that I was certain of; the rest of the itinerary has been developed as a matter of trial-and-error as I have learned of other opportunities. And for five of the six years, those home stays have been in La Corona. In 2011 we were in La Pita -- another wonderful community in the San Ramon township -- but I was glad to be back with my friends in La Corona.

A few local dogs were attentive during a brief orientation meeting; one sits here at the feet of a student with notable footwear.

After some introductions at the home of the Rayo family, our true orientation to the community of La Corona began. We started with a visit -- led by my friend Alfredo -- to the large farm from which the community emerged in the process of land reform following the 1979 revolution. In the foreground are the wet-mill facilities of that farm, which was operating at least at partial capacity until recently. In the distance are the shade-grown coffee farms of the community. The coffee itself is not visible, as these are covered by two canopies. One is of bananas and other fruits, which add flavor, and nutrients through the soil while augmenting family food supplies and income. The higher canopy provides shade -- modifiable through pruning -- to regulate the development of the coffee cherry while supplying bird habitat and firewood.

Diversification is the key to reducing the downside risks of dependency of commodities. For coffee producers, education is key to that diversification. The population of La Corona has doubled to 2,000 people since it opened a high school – the first in Nicaragua in a rural community. My favorite librarian poses in front of La Corona’s community center, which includes a library (biblioteca), as well as a very successful program in art education.

After a delicious community lunch and the short tour, our group divided into small groups for the home stays. Because La Corona is a series of homesteads with no central village, our group members were farther apart from each other than we had been for a week of close-quarters learning. Whenever I visit La Corona, I stay at the home of Doña Elsa and Don Alfredo, whose son Alfredo is a teacher and a leader in local and global youth movements. These visits are an ideal way to learn what participation in coffee really is like for small producers. During this visit, for example, my host Don Alfredo explained aspects of both planting and pruning that I had not learned before.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Back to Nicaragua -- Bonus Post 2: Coffee Video

Just before our arrival at Los Piños (described on the Day 5 post), Sara Corrales sent me a link to this video, produced by Salt Spring Coffee in Canada, which is one of the roasters that features their family's coffee. (In the U.S., Thanksgiving Coffee also features Byron's Maracaturra.)

The video rightly begins where Byron does: the soil. He rejects the Green Revolution's emphasis on soil productivity and even more recent notions of sustainability. Rather, his approach to soil emphasizes evolution, conservation, and protection.

Watching the video as a group on our last night in Nicaragua was a bit of a thrill for the group. Not only did it illustrate how much we had learned about coffee in just a few days, but this farm-to-cup lesson also features several of the people and places we enjoyed along the way.

As this film makes clear, excellent coffee is a partnership between farmers and roasters: each of the 50 or so steps required to make a cup of coffee can either diminish or improve the final result.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Back to Nicaragua -- Day 7 El Cua-Bocay

The main reason we have begun including Peñas Blancas on the study tour is that it provides access to the hydroelectric projects of northern Jinotega that the American engineer Benjamin Linder was developing when he was assassinated in 1987. In El Cuá, we stopped only for gasoline and some snacks. The largest grocery store in this small town reminds me very much of the corner groceries found in the United States nearly a century ago, and featured in a book that is my leisure reading on this trip, Marc Levinson’s The Great A & P. Most of the stock is behind a counter, and is brought to the customer by the clerks.

From El Cuá, we headed to Bocay, where Ben Linder’s legacy is very much alive, both in memorials and in a number of development projects. Our guide Freddy brought a photo out of the project office, which depicts Linder at a campus in the United States, protesting the Contra War and riding his trademark unicycle.

The permanent memorial reads:
Cua-Bocay ProjectIn Memory of Engineer Benjamin Linder
Born July 7 in the Year 1959
With his joy and courage he moved all of these people.
He died on April 28 in the Year 1987
In the Blue Horizon, where Heaven kisses the Sea.
His small figure will never cease to shine.
As with the 2011 study group, we visited the hydroelectric plant for which Linder was making field measurements when he was killed. The turbine continues to power the entire town of Bocay, and its building is now decorated with a vibrant mural celebrating Linder.


I was most interested in visiting the reservoir that in turn powers the turbine. Our schedule had not allowed such a visit in 2011, so we allowed extra time this year. We were surprised to learn that although it is a short distance away, the journey was even more difficult than the waterfall hike of the previous day. A single turbine delivers a remarkable amount of power from a small reservoir connected by a single, eight-inch pipe. The reason it works so well is the great potential energy of water positioned a full 800 feet above the turbine. Connected by a wide but slippery path, it is today an arduous climb. 

When Linder was making his measurements, of course, the road was not yet provided. He and two Nicaraguan co-workers -- Sergio Hernández and Pablo Rosales -- were killed just 100 meters beyond the eventual site of the reservoir. His death – two weeks before Pam and I were married – helped to galvanize opposition to the covert support the United States was providing to the Contras, and contributed to the ending of that very destructive war. The story is told in the film American/Sandinista and in Joan Kruckewitt’s book The Death of Ben Linder, and I have included several tributes on my Ben Linder Cafe page. 

Although I found the journey to these historic sites rewarding, we agreed that the climb to the reservoir -- even for those who did make it -- was more than we need to include in future tours. Fortunately, our guide was able to find enough information about related facilities in El Cuá, which will allow us to learn about that ongoing work while expanding the portion of the trip we dedicate to the study of cacao.

Back to Nicaragua -- Bonus Post

I have not yet caught up to the portion of our trip when we visited the community of La Corona, but I have posted an item about our nacatamale culinary experience there on our Nueva Receta blog.

Back to Nicaragua -- Day 6 Jinotega

After another delicious breakfast at Selva Negra, we set off on the next leg of our journey, into the heart of the northern state of Jinotega. Our first stop was the small city of the same name, with its charming central square. Parked on the square was a vehicle I found rather unusual. On Nicaragua’s highways, it is still common to see some of the monstrously large Russian dump trucks that date to the revolutionary period from 1979 through the mid 1980s. And though Cuba is still full of Lada passenger cars from the same period, this Russian economy box is not at all common in Nicaragua. I was therefore quite surprised to see a NEW Lada on the central square of Jinotega, much less one bearing signs for a Lada dealership.

 More interesting are the many examples of cultural and political public art in Jinotega, especially those celebrating women. In addition to murals depicting women as both warriors and farmers, a statue honors breast-feeding. As in the United States, this most natural act is sometimes seen as transgressive, and in fact the mother-and-child statue has been subject to vandalism.

Much of the rest of the day was spent on the short but arduous drive to the forest reserve at Peñas Blancas (White Cliffs), where we spent three hours on a hike to its most amazing waterfall. The path is steep and wet, but well maintained, so the climb was strenuous but for the most part feasible.

After cleaning up from the climb, we enjoyed a dinner prepared by the community and some free time with each other and with the children. Everry group of students has found that coloring and simple games with children are among the best ways to participate in the communities we visit.

Back to Nicaragua -- Day 5 Selva Negra

Just as we had ended our fourth day with Eddy Kuhl, we began our fifth with his wife Mausi, whose expertise is in the agronomy and ecology of the Selva Negra 1500-acre estate and reserve. For almost two hours, she drove us throughout the property, describing the many symbiotic relationships among the operations of the hotel, the farm, and the land on which each depends. At the end of the tour, our student Nick said, “My mother [an organic farmer in Massachusetts] would love her!” It was then that I remembered that Mausi had actually had dinner at Nick’s house and visited his family farm – ColchesterNeighborhood Farm, of which my family is a CSA member – during a visit to Bridgewater in 2010.

The social and environmental practices at Selva Negra are a positive model for other mid-sized producers, more than earning the farm’s organic and Rainforest Alliance certifications. In fact, in the current – and controversial – efforts to expand fair-trade certification to farms other than small cooperatives, Selva Negra is among the first mid-sized farms in the world to be considered.

Because water pollution is one of the major environmental concerns related to coffee, the Selva Negra has devoted much of its attention to the reduction of eutrophication. Even on farms where no pesticides or fertilizers are being used, the high concentration of sugar in coffee pulp can result in severe nutrient overloading in surrounding surface water. At Selva Negra – as at some other relatively large, progressive farms – the “honey” water from the fermentation process is captured in underground tanks where it can be used to create not only liquid fertilizer, but also methane gas for cooking. Selva Negra goes a step further, having implemented biogas capture in many other waste streams.

The sale of coffee gathered from 1.5 million trees facilitates a level of social security at Selva Negra that is rare among coffee growers. Housing is provided for the 250 year-round employees, which include some working in their third generation. A recent project provided high-efficiency cooking stoves for fifty households on the property. These stoves have reduced demand for wood, reduced cooking times, and – most importantly – reduced the health risks associated with conventional stoves.

From the tour of La Hammonia Farm (named for Hamburg, Germany), our attention turned to a strenuous hike into the Ardenal Reserve. Our three-hour hike on steep, often muddy trails was rewarded with a much richer understanding of the ecology and beauty of the cloud forest sub-biome. The experience was all the more informative because of our guide Freddy’s understanding of the natural history of many of the forest’s hundreds of plants and animals. He is shown above explaining how a strangler fig tree – an emi-epiphyte – takes over and eventually kills a host tree, without actually drawing any nutrients from it.

Abundant heat, sunlight, and moisture allow some trees to grow to enormous size, creating structures on which many other plants can grow, and providing fun opportunities for group photos. The Ardenal Reserve is known for the several hundred species of birds it shelters, but the only bird who posed for my camera were a pet parrot (parakeet) who was entertaining the chickens and Guinea fowl at a farm located at the far edge of the reserve.

At the end of the hike, we enjoyed a quick lunch at a roadside shop that specializes in bean soup, where we met a pet macaw.

From there, we were on our way to one of the tour’s major highlights. We gathered at Los Piños, the farm of the inimitable Byron Corales and his family. The fourth generation of this family is now caring for the plants, animals, and soil of this farm, with amazing results for coffee quality. With a rare combination of clarity, passion, and science, this “Poet of Coffee” weaves a mesmerizing tale of the care required to produce the world’s best coffee.

As Byron explains, the error of the misnamed Green Revolution is that it focuses on a single attribute of soil and agronomy: the relationship between macronutrients and short-term productivity. The Green Revolution emphasized nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium as the soil constituents best correlated with yields … and perhaps not coincidentally the easiest to sell.

Byron maintains these nutrients by carefully managing compost and manure, and in turn cares for the manure by carefully balancing the organic diet of his cattle. Equally important, however, he managed the microorganisms and enzymes in the soil, and interplants coffee with other fruits that influence the flavor. By allowing the roots of their carefully chosen coffee varietals to share the soil with other, carefully-selected plants, the Corales family creates a coffee that is almost unbelievably delicious. Because it was recognized as a world-wide Cup of Excellence Winner in 2004, an auction determined a price from which Byron has been able to calculate the retail value of the manure from his beloved cattle. (For more on the coffee itself, see the Salt Spring video I posted after our farm visit.)

As if the feeding of our minds and souls were not enough, Byron, his daughter Sara, and the rest of the Corales family fed us delicious fruits and chicken empanadas, in addition to all the world-class coffee we could want.

Back to Nicaragua -- Day 4 Matagalpa

Note: A few photos are included in these blog posts, but I am uploading many more – as bandwidth allows – to Flickr at

We awoke this morning (Saturday) at the hostel La Buena Honda in Matagalpa, the best city I know of for an early-morning walk. As I always do when staying with students in Matagalpa, I announced my intention to take a walk early in the morning, and I was pleased that five students were ready to set out with me at 6:30. A few blocks from the hostel, we climbed a steep street to an even steeper street to an even steeper trail that has been upgraded to a staircase since my earliest visits to the town. I chose this part of town for the great views of the cathedral and the rest of the city center; I chose the particular staircase because I know a scarlet macaw lives in a cage on a patio at the very top – a pet with a better view than most humans!
As we turned toward the stairs, I noticed some people descending toward us, but not just any people: a full mariachi band in bright red, skin-tight suits. Apparently on their way to a gig, they seemed as surprised to see us as we were them, and when I tried discretely to snap a photo of this surreal encounter, their leader said in Spanish, “A picture for the movie! A picture for the movie!” and struck a pose.

We did not have time to discern whether they were delusional or merely very adept kidders. A moment later each group had continued on its way, and we were so taken aback that I forgot to point out the macaw, though I did get a glimpse to confirm it is still there.

We did, however, collect our thoughts in time to turn back toward the downtown area, and our climb was rewarded with a delightful view of a city just waking up to its weekend. Our attention then turned to the hilltop neighborhood itself, where a high degree of spatial heterogeneity creates great visual interest. As with peripheral areas in many Latin American cities, this steep hillside includes a kind of intense variety that results from relatively rapid change. Nice houses, even quite fancy ones, exist next to those that range from modest to deplorable.

This fine-grain variability results in part from the timing of the arrival of each household, relative to prevailing prices at the time. Even more important, however, is the process of in situ accretion, by which simple homes may be established with very basic materials and then improved and expanded over time, as financial circumstances allow. This house provides a very simple example of such an expansion, while illustrating several other points about local geography.

The second story of this house was added as some point well after the house was constructed, a change that is evidenced by very subtle markings on the front of the house but that is very clearly visible on the side. The electrical utility service appears to be closer to standard than is sometimes found in such settings, even elsewhere in Matagalpa, but it does appear that some other-than-formal wiring has taken place. The wires, incidentally, hosts epiphytes – plants that typically grown on other plants. The forests of Matagalpa are rich with such plants, and this biodiversity is evident even on non-organic surfaces in the city itself.

The newly constructed improvements in this hillside community clearly help to improve walking, biking, or driving conditions. The wide ditches along the street indicate, however, that provision of proper drainage – which is much more difficult to achieve than electrical service – may have been an even greater priority. The drainage and access arrangements in the “back yard” of a nearby house illustrate just how precarious the situation can be. Systematic drainage improvements are complicated if they are undertaken after the settlement process has taken hold. Significant public investment may be supported, however, in cases where the improved drainage not only protects the livelihoods of those in such communities. It also may protect down-slope communities from added flood risk. 

From the city, we headed upward to El Chile, a community of Matagalpa indigenous who grow some coffee but are better known for weaving. In the middle of the twentieth century, the dictator Samoza was determined to make his own cotton fields near Leόn the monopoly producers. He destroyed the cotton fields cultivated by the Matagalpa indigenous, both to eliminate their competition and to compel them to work for him. The tradition of weaving was nearly lost until an Argentine named Marta came to the area as a volunteer during the Sandinista period. From a few older women in the community, she learned the traditional weaving methods, and adapted them to a looms that she had built on the basis of a Spanish model.

We met Marta during our 2010 tour, when she was contemplating retirement and was concerned about the future of the project. We learned that she had actually visited the project the day before our own visit this year, and she must have been very pleased. The weaving continues, though in three separate groups. In Marta’s former home, Francisca now leads the weaving effort, while other members have been very successful in marketing –promoting the products, finding new sales outlets, and better understanding prevailing prices so that the women actually earn a bit more than they once were.
We went to the second of the three small weaving co-ops now operating in El Chile, and learned how the traditional process works. Where a mechanical loom can produce about three meters of meter-wide cloth in a day, the belt loom is limited to a narrower piece of cloth, produced at about one meter per day. I purchased a few small purses made in this way, and will be offering them for sale at BSU’s Just Trade Fair on April 5 of this year.

After visiting the two weaving cooperatives, we climbed through a nearby coffee farm to the top of a local peak, from which we enjoyed a 360-view of many surrounding valleys and mountains. Of course, such vistas always call for a group photo!
Looking at the view in more detail (see below), geography students were able to discern some coffee fields by color and texture. That is, the coffee fields (a narrow band just above the student’s hat) have darker leaves and a lower, more uniform height than surrounding forest. Although only minimal acreage was visible in this way, we understood that much of what we see in this view is actually secondary forest that shelters shade-grown coffee, including some of the very best high-grown coffee in the world.
From El Chile, we returned to Selva Negra, a famous and historic coffee estate which was our home base for this portion of the journey. There we watched the delivery of one of many truckloads of freshly-picked coffee “grapes” that were being brought in at the end of a harvest day. After every third truck, the intake bin would be flooded, and the water used to carry the coffee through the first part of the processing, in which skins are separated from seeds (beans), and the coffee is allowed to ferment in water for 18 hours (the duration varies somewhat). 

We did not get to see the process this time, as we had an appointment with Eddy Kuhl, the engineer, historian, artist, and raconteur who has operated Selva Negra with his wife Mausi Kuhl since 1974.
We spent the early evening being entertained and educated by Eddy, who literally wrote the book on the history of coffee in Nicaragua. He told the story of coffee’s introduction from the point of view of his own family and that of Mausi. As with many young German migrants toward the end of the nineteenth century, these ancestors were attracted by offers of free land from the Nicaraguan government. Such incentives had begun in the 1850s, as Nicaragua witnessed many potential settlers passing through the southern waterways of the country on their way to the California Gold Rush.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Back to Nicaragua -- Day 3 Matagalpa

Revised January 14, 2012

We began our third day (January 6) of the 2012 Geography of Coffee study tour with a quick stop at a mural that we had noticed earlier in our travels around Leόn. Murals are an important part of social and political discourse in Nicaragua, as they are in Mexico and elsewhere. As many murals as I have seen, I had never had the opportunity to speak with a muralist. This new mural commemorates the July 23, 1959 massacre of four University of Leόn students by Samoza’s National Guard. The lead artist told us that he has been shocked to learn -- from conversations with visitors to his mural -- about parallel events in many other countries, and from us he learned of the Kent State killings on May 4, 1970 (my 7th birthday).

As we left Leόn, we stopped at the small “hervidores” (boilers) in the community of San Jacinto. These small hotpots and geysers are a reminder of the great variety of volcanic and geothermal features here on the zone of tectonic convergence between the Cocos and North American plates.

Our travels then took us through Sebaco to the city of Matagalpa, capital of the state of the same name, and in many ways the capital of Nicaraguan coffee. I enjoy this city immensely – a vibrant downtown that is just the right size for exploring on foot, surrounded by beautiful mountains. Among the many changes I have witnessed in six years of visiting this city is the new statue to Carlos Fonseca, the intellectual leader of the Sandinista Revolution, and one of its martyrs. It is delightful to see a major public monument of hero holding a book.

Another change over the past half-decade has been the steady improvement of Matagalpa’s Coffee Museum. Some equipment is on display, as are many storyboards that tell the story of coffee in general and Matagalpa coffee in particular. The graphic below is not completely accurate, but provided a great framework for our guide Freddy and I to lead a discussion of how coffee spread from its origins in Ethiopia in AD 500 to the rest of the world, mostly through the process of colonization.

Each of my visits to Nicaragua has included a visit to the grave of Benjamin Linder, the young engineer who was the first U.S. citizen to be killed in the Contra War. With many people of my generation (or slightly older), Ben had come to Nicaragua to support its people during the very difficult period following the Sandinista Revolution. He was assassinated while working to provide hydroelectric power to coffee-growing communities of the far north; we will be visiting those projects in a few days.

Ben Linder’s funeral was one of the largest ever held in Nicaragua, and he was buried with honor in Matagalpa, its citizens insisting that he belonged in the local section of the cemetery. In previous visits, we have been impressed and curious about the ornate appearance of the graves and the activities of local people attending funerals or tending to the graves of relatives. Beginning in 2011, I decided it would be better to participate in some small way than simply to observe and take photos. For this reason I have brought students to the grave of Ben Linder to honor him. Following the tradition usually reserved for El Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead), we remove trash and weeds from the area around the grave, bring flowers, and toast the departed with a beverage he or she was known to enjoy in life. On our arrival, we were pleasantly surprised to learn that a ground cover and an orange tree had been added since my last visit, and that a local artisan had been hired by a Matagalpa family to repaint the lettering on the gravestone.

We concluded the day with a visit to CECOCAFEN, a cooperative of cooperatives representing more than 2,600 coffee-farming families in Matagalpa, Jinotega, and Nueva Segovia. It was a tourism project of CECOCAFEN that originally brought me to Nicaragua, and visits to its member farms remain central to the study tour. During a visit to the CECOCAFEN main office, Santiago Dolma spent a couple of hours with our group, with the help of translator Rafael. He began by taking questions from students, which allowed him to bring together a lot of interesting ideas, both practical and theoretical. Given recent news about the “divorce” between the major certification agencies (TransFair and FLO), it was a privilege to have an in-depth discussion with this expert.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Back to Nicaragua -- Day 2 Leon

Updated Jan 7

Our first full day in Nicaragua was full of learning and adventure. In the morning, we visited the office and two projects of the Polus Center, a Massachusetts based NGO that assists and empowers people with disabilities.

The first project we visited is PLUSAA, which produces custom-made wheelchairs and other mobility-assistance equipment. The program sources all of its parts domestically. This commitment minimizes costs and facilitating repairs.

We also visited the prosthetic/orthotic clinic Walking Unidos. Like PLUSAA, Walking Unidos provides physical services, but more importantly, both organizations are staffed by people who themselves live and work with disabilities and can therefore help with emotional and social habilitation.

After lunch, we visited Cerro Negro, the world's second-youngest volcano. At 160 years old, only Mexico's Paricutin is younger.
Cerro Negro has erupted at least 20 times since it first emerged in 1850, including three significant eruptions in the 1990s. The steaming caldera is impressive, and relatively high winds require careful footing around its edge. This was my fourth visit to Cerro Negro, and I was determined to try the sandboarding. I think I'm going to make it a habit now!

Pam joined me for the journey this time, and climbed Cerro Negro. She "walked" down rather than take the sandboard, following the very steep trail in the rear of the photo below. It was just about as arduous as the boarding, but both of us managed well!

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Back to Nicaragua -- Day 1 arrival

As I mentioned previously, I am leading my sixth study tour to Nicaragua, entitled Geography of Coffee. From the first day we have just a brief report: everyone arrived in good spirits despite bone-chilling temperatures at departure and a few ticketing issues. This is a curious, energetic group with a high quotient of geographers! The first day of the trip involves meeting our guides and getting oriented to the idea of using geography to learn about coffee, and coffee to learn about geography. On the first two days, we see no actually coffee cultivation, but we are learning a lot of the fundamentals of physical and human geography that will come into play.

Our marvelous tour operator -- Matagalpa Tours -- works very well with the learning goals and learning approach that I encourage. The company also chooses a good balance of authentic, simple foods (such as we had for lunch) and a few tastes of the haute cuisine that is available in some spots. For our first evening's dinner together, we enjoyed the fare at the cleverly named Cocinartes.

Keep checking this blog and the 2012 trip web page for more news about our travels, but do not worry if we stop posting for a few days. We will be going "off the grid" early next week!

Championing the City of Champions

I haved lived and taught in Bridgewater -- just south of Brockton -- for fifteen years now. I meet a lot of people who have lived near Brockton for as long or longer than I have, who have never been in the city! (Zipping through the western edge on Route 24 does not count.) The reason, it turns out, is fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of racial diversity, fear of being shot.

As one downtown minister pointed out in the aftermath of a Christmas-day shooting, the city's hard-core criminal one percent has managed to overshadow the 99 percent of Brocktonians who go to work or school every day and contribute in many ways to the strength of the community. But that one percent -- or whatever proportion of the populace is responsible for high-profile pathologies -- has a disproportionate influence on perception, particularly among those whose intake of "news" is limited to television, commercial talk radio, or tabloid newspapers. (Even the Brockton Enterprise, which tries to accentuate positive stories about Brockton, also leads with the grimly sensational any day that it can.)

The disportionate fear of crime arises from several factors, but as John Allen Paulos points out early in his book Innumeracy, it is a symptom of a country with limited ability to use and apply math in everyday life. The results can be amusing, if disheartening. A few years ago, a student in my Geography of Brockton course wrote an essay about a Saturday-morning drive around town (what geographers call a "windshield survey") on which I had taken some of the students. This athletic, seemingly confident young man reported relief at surviving the journey and surprise at how normal everything had been. He wrote of people doing yard work and other chores, and how the houses and cars looked better-kept than he expected. Growing up in the region but not the city, he had avoided the area entirely, and his mental map of Brockton was like a scene from Grand Theft Auto. I since realized that thousands of people in this region skirt around the edges of Brockton on a regular basis, envisioning the worst in center of their regional mental map. It is as if the dragons at the edge of an ancient map had been dragged to the center. (Cartographic aside: Peter van der Krogt argues that such maps never were made.)

I do not write this to trivialize the crime that does occur. One reason that this article has taken so long for me to write is that while I was writing, I learned of a database that ranks Brockton's crime rate in the top 100 nationally, while listing my own town of Bridgewater among the 100 safest. Those rankings are somewhat fickle, and shift somewhat depending on details of methodology, but they make clear that the stereotypes mentioned above are not without some basis in fact: dangers in Brockton -- particularly in the center -- are real.

Those dangers need not define the city, however, as Brockton native Mary Beth Meehan makes clear in her work. I have seen some of it, but have not yet taken the time to explore all of it. As shown below and as discussed with Megna Chakrabarti on Radio Boston, Meehan has created a most unusual photographic exhibit. She places photography of the everyday in public spaces, so that Brocktonians and their visitors can see the people who define their community. This celebration of what people bring to the city -- from all corners of the Earth, as it turns out -- can help to recast downtown as a bit more nuanced than headlines and stereotypes would suggest.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Cafe Stories

In a single section of last Friday's Boston Globe, I found two extraordinary stories about the geography of coffee shops that I will use to introduce my next batch of coffee students to the range of possibilities. The first was a lengthy obituary (culled from the Washington Post) of Leopold Hawelka, who recently died at age 100. His first attempt at opening a cafe was interrupted by World War II, but he did not wait for the partition of his city to be lifted before embarking again. In a city with centuries of café history, his story stands out. From starving artists to the simply starving, Café Hawelka was exactly what a café  is meant to be: a place of warmth and gathering. (I include the Sydney Morning Herald tribute and a Wikipedia article, in case the link to the Post item expires; the story of this fascinating place should be read and shared!)

As I turned the page from the sublime pinnacle of café culture, I found this title above a much shorter article, dateline Augusta, Maine: "Suspect denies setting fire to coffee shop." For many readers of the Metro section, this might be the first encounter of the cringe-worthy phrase "topless coffee shop," but cafe geography is sometimes sexy or even prurient. In the story, we learn that a Kennebec County Superior Court judge endured defendant Raymond Bellavance's four-hour-long denial of charges that he burned the aptly named Grand View Coffee Shop, where a former girlfriend worked. According to a subsequent report on WABI-TV, the shop was occupied at the time of the fire, with two children among the seven people present. Bellavance was found guilty and could be sentenced to as much as thirty years.

As I marveled at the extreme variety of cafés and café stories, a friend referred me to the story of Café Riche, two blocks from the now-famous Tahrir Square, where the Arab Spring first came to Egypt. I was reminded of my recent post about Café Slavia in Prague, but the century-plus experience of this Cairo corner shop is if anything even more amazing. As described in The Economist, Café Riche has been a hub of intellectual foment since it opened in 1908 -- both a microcosm of and a critical element in the urban geography of Cairo and the political geography of the entire nation. As the world watches to see what will happen in post-Mubarak Egypt, we would do well to watch this single street corner.

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