Thursday, July 26, 2012

Embracing Immigrants

I recently spoke (and wrote) about the humanitarian case for more positive attitudes toward immigrants. This week, I found two news items that make the economic case.

Even though the town of Hazelton, Pennsylvania enacted strong measures to discourage migration -- measures whose constitutionality is still being tested in court -- migration has continued, and a recent study has documented the economic benefits.

Meanwhile, Baltimore, Maryland is actively encouraging immigrants to move in to a city with many serious problems but still much to offer, and certainly plenty of inexpensive housing in need of occupants.
Baltimore row houses, image from the work of
sociologist and photographer David Schalliol.
Both cases remind me a bit of Framingham, Massachusetts, a city that in many ways failed to embrace its Brazilian immigrant community, and that did not really recognize the contributions of immigrants until many of them left during the economic downturn.

For more on immigration, see what it has meant for Mitt Romney.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Web of Violence

The United States has a lot of money and an endless appetite for opiates, narcotics, and weapons of all kinds. The varied environments of Latin America include perfect growing conditions for plant-based drugs, and economic conditions that often favor illicit employment and corruptible public officials. (Not that underemployment or corruption are unknown north of the Rio Grande.) Given its central position between suppliers and customers, northern Mexico has become the focus of increasingly desperate -- and ineffective -- efforts to interdict drugs.

Jonathan Rivalt and Richard Johnson of Ontario's National Post have researched the geography of both the trade and the violence, mapping the connections that bring drugs into Mexico and the connections between the cartels and market areas in the United States. (As many online commentators have noticed, the research inexplicably stops at the US-Canada border, but the maps are instructive, nonetheless.)

As I noted recently, President Calderon has paid a political price for his extreme cooperation in the US-led "war on drugs," but it is the people and communities of northern Mexico that have paid by far the greatest price. The graphic below can be more easily viewed in the original National Post article.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Haunting My Old Haunts

While I was a student at UMBC, I enjoyed many visits to the historic downtown district of Ellicott City, often ending up there after a day of hiking in Patapsco State Park (which some might recognize from  the very independent film The Blair Witch Project). During our most recent visit to see friends and family in the area, we took a ghost tour organized by the Howard County Tourism Council, and thoroughly enjoyed seeing our old haunts from a different perspective.

Our tour began around sunset, as the temperature settled back into double digits, and took us from the visitor's center up to the Judge's Bench (where a friend of mine once tended bar) and then down to the river-side railroad trestle that serves at the dramatic gateway to this charming town. The support pillar behind our guide shows the extreme water levels reached during various historic floods of the town. By the way, is that a ghost in the lower-right corner?

Throughout the walk, the history and geography of the town was interwoven with ghost stories, some more plausible than others, from the guide's own experience, hearsay, and ancient tales. The locational factors that keep ghosts nearby include the flow of water through and under quartz-bearing granite (making the entire town a kind of "battery" according to true believers), its sordid history with slavery and civil war, and solidly-built buildings of long vintage.

Very local granite is the main building material. Some structures are built directly on granite outcrops that form their main back walls, and almost all use massive blocks hewn from those outcrops. The edges of each block are lined with half-cylinder holes a few inches deep and almost an inch wide, where drills created perforations, along which rocks could be blasted apart. On the rock faces themselves, we were shown spots where such blocks had been taken away, and our guide pointed to a hole in which a drill bit was broken off. I could not see the bit, but my trusty camera could!

Whatever we might think of the stories shared on the tour, one recent story could be verified. Last September, a substantial retaining wall collapsed, and though injury was avoided, five cars were destroyed.
Image: ExploreHoward
According to our guide, the cars are buried in the rubble, though it turns out that if they are buried, it is beneath additional rock brought in to stabilize the slope at a much lower angle of repose. I returned during daylight hours to photograph the stabilized slope ... and the ghost shop nearby!
Redefining "automotive graveyard"
The retaining wall is on the SW corner of Maryland Avenue and St. Paul Street. The photos above were taken from slightly different positions just to the south of the caboose shown on this aerial view.

The caboose, incidentally, is part of the B&O railroad museum. It is affiliated with the big railroad museum in downtown Baltimore, but it has the distinction of being housed in the oldest railroad station in the United States. The first thirteen miles of track terminated at this station, which is at the head of navigation of the Patapsco River. Any freight -- such as corn and tobacco -- that could be gotten to this location could then be transported by water to the Port of Baltimore and thence to the world beyond. From the establishment of Ellicott Mills in 1771 until the opening of the railroad in 1830, all of this commerce was by wagon and water.

When I lived nearby as a student, Frederick Road was my favorite among many that began in the center of Baltimore and could be followed mile after mile, in the path of early traders. The stretch of Frederick Road known as Main Street was built by the Ellicott Brothers, but is also sometimes considered among the first few miles of what was to become the National Road. Sources vary as to whether the road begins at this spot in Ellicott City, in the western-Maryland city of Cumberland, or somewhere on the Chesapeake Bay. Most do agree, however, that the original road has been upgraded and/or bypassed at various points by US 40 and I-70.

Friday, July 06, 2012

Cold Iced

At this time of year, attention turns to the question of how to prepare iced coffee. A friend recently shared a variation on cold brewing that was new to me, entitled Perfect Iced Coffee. Posted on the Pioneer Woman blog, this recipe emphasizes patience. Interestingly, I noticed this post just as I was enjoying and iced coffee after a bit of yard work. I describe how I prepared mine at the end of this post.

As Pioneer Woman points out, iced coffee is fraught with difficulty. Simply pouring coffee over ice essentially ruins it, and most ways of solving the problem involve time, complexity or both. The solution she does require both, but is redeemed by the avoidance of high temperature. It may be for this reason that the use of pre-ground, low-grade coffee does not impart excessive bitterness. The generous contribution of dairy products might also have something to do with her favorable results.

Iced coffee is generally more forgiving of flaws than hot coffee, but I believe that starting with terribly flawed coffee dooms the project to mediocrity at best. Pre-ground coffee is like pre-opened Champagne. Once coffee is ground, staling reactions begin that cannot be reversed, though they can be masked.

Some folks in the business recommend particular blends specifically for iced, but I've never found a worthwhile distinction. Rather, I find that a coffee I enjoy hot will be enjoyable for similar reasons iced -- whether smooth or bold, sweet or floral, that will be conveyed hot or cold, though I would welcome any demonstrable corrections on this.

The last time I served iced coffee to a group was for a presentation I gave on immigration at my church. Of course I brought Central American coffee, in this case a special coffee from Honduras. I had brewed it slightly strong the night before in a drip pot (a Black & Decker SmartBrew, whose main advantage is high temperature). I  let it cool to just above room temperature and then put it in the refrigerator overnight. It could then be served with ice and minimal dilution.

This is exactly the method that the blogger dismisses, but everyone who tried it loved it. I would like to try her method side-by-side with the coffee I used and the coffee she used. I would predict that her method with my coffee would be the best result.

Of course, neither of these methods is useful in a situation such as I faced this morning -- a bit of heavy yard work, too early in the day for a beer, and no iced coffee in the house. For such situations, I am always grateful to my brother and sister-in-law for the gift many years ago of a West Bend iced tea maker. Structured like a drip coffee maker, one puts bags or a filter with tea or coffee in the top and water in the machine. The difference is to nearly fill the serving vessel with ice. With a little experimentation, one can learn how much tea to put in in order to compensate for the melted ice. Once that dose is found, this becomes a very quick and reliable way to get iced coffee in about 10-12 minutes.

For more thoughts on the factors that affect coffee preparation, see the Caring for Coffee page on my web site.

Morning Walk About the Hub

Click to enlarge
The map above from Orange Smile is a bit out of date, but is just the right scale for looking at the walk I took Thursday morning, from South Station over to Tyler Avenue in Chinatown, where I picked up a visa for my daughter's upcoming service trip. The train schedule was such that I could return home right after my errand, or I could spend a couple hours exploring. As Pirsig would say, I had a choice between "good time" and "good time."

Three factors guided my choice in the right direction -- it was a warm but not humid morning, perfect walking weather; I could get to coffee shops in the North End; and there was some chance of seeing Tall Ships in the area. I did not have enough information to find the last of these, but I'm glad I took advantage of the weather and I did in fact enjoy a cappuccino in a very local cafe. 

I emphasized walking over photography, so I did not even take any photos in Chinatown itself, but I could not resist snapping a few of the things I did notice.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I am reluctant to second-guess the work of other people, or to assume that it is as easy as it looks. I could not help thinking however, that the tunnel administration building that overlooks the Callahan and Sumner Tunnels might reflect a bit of bureaucratic over-capacity. Vehicles parked in front of the building suggest that the tunnel administration is part of the Turnpike Authority, a redundant highway department that our governor tried in vain to remove during his first term in office.

Completion of the famous/infamous Big Dig means that Boston has even more tunnels than it did when this building was erected. Conservatively estimated at $14,800,000,000, the Central Artery/Tunnel Project created the only tunnel I know of with exit and entrance ramps inside the tunnel. It remains enormously complex, with lawsuits and repairs likely to justify the employment of buildings full of people in perpetuity.

UPDATE: A couple days after I posted this, the true cost was calculated at more than $24,000,000,000. This is literally more money than has ever been spent building anything. Ever.

It may all have been worth it -- it certainly was for the crooks from Bechtel who drove the cost ever-skyward but have avoided liability for the project's many flaws. It may also have been worth it for the city as well, though, as it removed the elevated highway shown on the map above (running northwest from the Aquarium, and separating the North End from Downtown). Some details of what to do with the resultant open space were not resolved prior to project completion (even though it was years overdue), but for the first time I noticed some improvements in place. The (Countess) Rose Kennedy Greenway replaces some of the ugliest highway miles in the country (incidentally, named for her father) with beautiful gardens, walking, and gathering spaces. I met tourists who were enjoying the walk as they searched for a gathering of food trucks that would not have been possible prior to the Dig. Is all this worth the million dollars or so it cost per linear foot? I'm not sure; but now that it is in place, it behooves us all to enjoy it.

I missed the tall ships, though I did see a sort of "parade" of pleasure craft that seemed to be moving with or toward some sort of nautical event. Not wanting to delay further, I decided to enjoy the view without pursuing those bigger vessels. In the process, I got to see a few airplanes approaching Logan Airport from the south. Being built -- as much of the city is -- on artificial fill, the runways end remarkably close to the water. My first daytime landing at Logan a number of years ago was memorable for the impression that we were about to ditch the plane.

View Larger Map

Drug-War Refugees Redux

Earlier today, I posted an article -- from Fox News of all places -- about the difficulty of obtaining asylum faced by refugees from northern Mexico's drug war.

A friend asked a good question about why the United States should take responsibility for this problem. Aside from the general responsibility that all countries have for providing asylum to refugees, I see responsibility in this case falling in three main areas. 

First, of course thugs in Mexico are directly responsible for being thugs. Looking into deeper sources of the problem does not excuse the inhuman behavior of the cartels -- and particularly of those who once served as narcotics police.

But second, just as in Colombia, the stronger the interdiction, the more vicious the criminal element it attracts. So the first part of our responsibility is that we prohibit something that so many of our people are willing to buy, and we shift the burden of prevention to supplying countries. And that burden results in thousands of innocent dead and -- as I wrote back in 2010 -- large areas in which regular people cannot safely live. One difference here is that much of the violence relates to pot, of which possession in small quantities is a misdemeanor in many places.

And third, the weapons increasingly come from the United States, where there are essentially no limits. Mexico tries to stop the guns at the border, but there they are so easy to obtain in large quantities at gun shows -- particularly in our border states -- that even legitimate Mexican authorities would be hard-pressed to stop them. And the money corrupting authorities on both side means that even those efforts will be minimal.

This is a HUGE case of the proverbial cat out of the bag, and I do not know anyone with a cogent solution in the short term. Last weekend's election is the result of a rather desperate desire for change but it is not clear what the PRI will be able to do, other than distance itself from U.S. policy.

Without any cogent solution, though, we have an obligation to accept refugees, under international agreements. The United States always is very selective in its application of refugee status, refusing to designate people as refugees if they are fleeing situations for which we are in part to blame (see: Central America in the 1980s). As unpopular as it would be in this election year, however, there is added moral urgency to provide some relief for those whose circumstances we have helped to create.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Mexican Hopes

I hesitate to include this photograph of the dashing young president-elect of Mexico, in light of COHA's observation that media coverage of the recent political season has been as superficial as it was scant. Enrique Peña Nieto was, however, elected on Sunday with a substantial plurality, amid high voter turnout, and we should start to getting to know him. To catch up, I recommend three articles:

The Economist published The PRI is Back on Monday; it is the best introduction to the story. BBC and others are now reporting on the reluctance of the PRD candidate Obregon to concede the electionAll Things Considered also discussed the return of PRI as The Old is New Again, but inexplicably used the term "iron fist" to describe what was a much more complicated seven decades of rule.

I recommend reading and listening to these before reading more in-depth analysis from the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. What a Return to a PRI-Dominated Government Would Mean for Mexican Democracy was published just a couple of days before the election, and examines the apparent repudiation of the PAN approach to drug cartels. Although PAN's Calderon took an approach generally favored in Washington, it clearly did not work, and did not require enough of Presidents Bush or Obama. With over 50,000 people dead, Mexico seems to be ready for a different approach.

Once the election is truly settled, attention can turn toward determining the new balance of priorities in Mexico, particularly in its northernmost states. For more of my thoughts on the challenges facing Mexico and its northern neighbor, see my recent posts No se Olviden Mexico on Environmental Geography and Migration and Faith on First Parish Bridgewater.

Monday, July 02, 2012

A Morbid Sense of Place

By definition, people use vanity plates to convey something -- usually a single something -- about themselves, and as a geographer I notice when someone chooses to make that one thing a connection to a place. I am not sure I would have understood the significance of this breath-taking example from Rhode Island, were I not at the place when I saw it.

The place is not even in Rhode Island, but in a nearby corner of Massachusetts. we found this car parked behind the Lizzie Borden Bed &Breakfast / Museum, at the conclusion of a morbidly delightful tour.

Yes ... in case you are wondering, the site of the brutal 1892 murders of Abby and Andrew Borden is a B&B, where the more expensive rooms are those closest to the crime scenes. The breakfast menu resembles that served to the family just hours before the stepmother and then the father were killed, with the exception of bad mutton. Andrew Borden's thriftiness was so profound that meat purchased early in the week was eaten all week, so that by that Thursday in August, the mutton may have contributed to the motive for what almost certainly was an inside crime.

For the record, Lizzie Borden was acquitted of the murder of her stepmother and father, but few people believe she was wholly or even partly innocent. She might have benefited from the common presumption in those Victorian days that women could not commit murder. Indeed, she was not questioned right away, even though she was the only person in the house without a strong alibi. The alibi of her paternal uncle (in the house on a hastily-arranged visit), by the way, may have been a little too strong: he knew the names of six priests he met on a trolley shortly after the killings.

Historians know this family and household to a level of detail that seems disproportionate to their modest prominence in the community. Detailed testimony and crime-scene photography has allowed the museum managers to furnish the house with a high degree of accuracy in terms of arrangements, designs and patterns, though not necessarily in color choices. Detailed inquests and testimony allow the guides to retell the stories with a great deal of specificity; even though doubt continues to shroud the basic question of who did what, it is fairly well known what was done that August morning.

Among the creepier details are the casts of the skulls (not the original, thankfully) on display in the dining room, along with the stretcher used for the autopsy. I thought the cane wicker was too weak for such a purpose, but our guide pointed out that it was very practical for drainage. We declined her offer to show us autopsy photographs.

Among the many period details I found intriguing, the one of which I was most covetous -- perhaps not surprisingly -- was the coffee grinder in the kitchen.

This is a B&B whose customers only get to stay one night, by the way, not that I imagine many people wish to do more than that. Because tours operate on the hour from 11 to 3 each day, check-in and check-out are strictly enforced around that schedule.

Another interesting memento is the dress worn by Elizabeth Montgomery in the 1975 television movie The Legend of Lizzie Borden. During the filming, according to our guide, the actress (better known for Bewitched) found out that she was a cousin of the famed Fall River resident she was playing. 

My wife Pam remembers that this show was her first acquaintance with the story, but I had never heard of it until yesterday. I learned of the crime the same way most people do, I suspect, by way of the morbid couplet:

Lizzie Borden took an ax and gave her mother forty wacks;  When she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one.
Among the many details gleefully shared by our guide is that the victims suffered "only" 18-19 and 11 blows with a hatchet, respectively.

A neighboring sign business, by the way, offers a different kind of sense of place for the neighborhood. All of the portraits on the side of Lavoie & Tavares Painting & Decorating are of deceased heroes, but only two of the six met violent ends.

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