October 2007


Now that the North wind has begun to made bicycling an obstacle, I’d like to take you back to a 90-degree day in late September when, for the first time ever, the Milwaukee Avenue Historic District here in Minneapolis was opened for house tours. 7 houses were open to the public on Sunday, September 23rd, in an event sponsored by the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota and the Seward Neighborhood Group, and a friend and I were eager to see the insides of the houses. (They put up a little blogspot page for the tour, but it’s since been taken down. The Milwaukee Avenue Homeowners Assoc does have a website with historical information.)

Milwaukee Ave today is a pleasant pedestrian street in the middle of the pleasant Seward neighborhood, near the river and the university. From the outside, all the little houses on the four-block length of the street look almost identical, with porches and cute gingerbread woodwork painted different colors. It’s a nice place to take a stroll, cut through on your bike, or go trick-or-treating. There’s almost never a house for sale on Milwaukee Ave, and when they go on the market they cost a bit more than houses in the surrounding neighborhood. Milwaukee Ave was also one of the first districts in Minneapolis put on the National Register, in 1974.

But it wasn’t always this way. Milwaukee Ave was planned as a workers’ community for immigrants from Eastern Europe and Scandinavia hired to work on the Milwaukee Railroad. The houses were built between 1883 and 1895, by builders, not architects, in a vernacular style, on lots about half the size of those in the surrounding neighborhood. The houses were built on the cheap and by the early 1970s, they were decrepit and falling down, and the city planned to raze them. But some residents of Milwaukee Ave, including Bob Roscoe, who led the preservation effort, argued that the neighborhood feel of the medium-density housing and the community that that infrastructure helped create was worth preserving.

They organized a neighborhood action group and lobbied successfully to save Milwaukee Ave. In the restoration process houses were lifted to add foundations and basements, remaining materials were salvaged, stucco finishes were stripped from the brick, woodwork and porches were added. Some houses were demolished and replaced with new historic replicas.

I’m really impressed by the community-building and lobbying work it took to save the avenue, but upon touring the houses you discover what happened to the interiors. Many houses had to be mostly gutted due to the deterioration of the interiors, and were renovated according to the desires of the owners at the time, and their desires were apparently to create ’70s split-levels. Though the houses are quite small, they have great rooms and lofts and extra floors and wall-to-wall carpeting and so on. One house had a built-in wooden buffet salvaged from a mansion torn down around the same time the house was being renovated. Imagine the horror those barons of industry would have felt that their woodwork was being installed in a railroad worker’s house! The only house on the tour with a 19th C interior was one just off Milwaukee Ave, on 23rd Ave, which had not been renovated in the 1970s, and it had the proportions and feel of an older house, with many small rooms to be closed off in the winter. (I think it also helped impress me that this particular home was owned by an artist, and there were pieces of etched copper all around the house.)

Despite my perhaps snobby dislike of the interior renovations, I think there are some real questions to consider when discussing Milwaukee Ave. Who was this preserved for? What should a property’s original use have to do with how it’s preserved? In the preservation process, the houses went from working-class company housing (for renters and tenants) to more costly single-family-owned middle-class Queen Anne houses (at least to look at them from the outside). The brochure given out at the tour nominated Milwaukee Ave, with its close-together houses with facing porches, as a forerunner of New Urbanism. But New Urbanism has always seemed to me to be about nostalgia, about building new developments that looked back to a 1940s small town with middle-class folks sitting on their porches drinking lemonade and going to the pictures together. For Milwaukee Ave, this was a past that never existed.

Inside and out, for those Finnish railroad workers who were its first inhabitants, Milwaukee Ave would be unrecognizable. What does that mean? Who is historic preservation for?

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I’ve found just a few other reports of SHOT, one from Ecorover, who went on the Harper’s Ferry tour with Roe Smith (awesome), and one from Dictatorship of the Air, a Soviet historian whose paper was misconstrued by the audience.  I’m puzzled that I can’t find any other posts on the meeting–are there so few history of technology bloggers?  Did none of them go to SHOT this year?  Did they tag their posts ‘puppies’  so that I couldn’t find them?

Anyway, now that I have another SHOT post I can tell you another story.  I shared a cab to the airport with a random guy who, when he found out I was a historian of medicine, asked me what was the grossest thing I’ve learned about, and I gave a whole disquisition about the history and earlier ubiquity of intestinal worms.  I had no idea I knew that much about worms, but it seemed to be sufficiently gross.  I’m adding this one to my stable of cocktail party speeches about syphilis and teratology.

A new blog on the history of computing and IT:  my pal Stephanie at the Charles Babbage Institute at the University of Minnesota Libraries has started a blog for the CBI, featuring news about their collections and activities.  I’ve been working for the CBI on a project, and can attest to the fact that they have terrific collections and are all very friendly to boot.

Blogging about blogging:

William Turkel had an interesting post on originality in the blogosphere.  He suggests that the value bloggers place on ‘substantive’ posts over links posts is misleading, and that, with so much material out there, other folks’ links can be an important clue to what’s interesting/useful, and this unprecedented access to other peoples’ work can be extremely productive. “Sure the collective is doomed to repeat things, but how else could it memorize them?”

Jessamyn talks about the distributed nature of conversation on the blogosphere and the importance of becoming part of those conversations through commenting and whatever else.

I think an easy mistake for first-time bloggers to make is to assume that their blog is going to become some conversational destination without realizing that they need to go out and converse as well as bring people in to do it. The conversation that we all talk about cluing in to doesn’t happen in any one place, it happens in a lot of places all at once.

I’ve recently been commenting only on kidlit blogs, so as someone who runs a history blog, this is a good reminder to participate more in history/museum conversations.

PH metablogging:

I’m just about done with my long-awaited State of the Public History Blogosphere post, so look for that relatively soon.

Also, PH has been around for one year, as of September.  Happy birthday to me!

The film noir series at the revamped Parkway Theater in South Minneapolis showed Kiss Me Deadly (1955) this week.  Based on a Mickey Spillane novel I’ve never read, it seemed like a conventional film noir at first, with a stoic private eye hero, fast-talking dames, and so forth, it soon showed itself to have (slightly preposterous) history of science content.

The mysterious object that everyone was looking for, that folks were being killed for, was a box with a leather cover, with straps.  The box felt warm to the touch.  When the box was opened, a bright light flashed out, and Mike Hammer found himself with a peculiar scar on his hand.  The weary cop, when he tells Hammer to give over the key to the locker where the box was hidden, says he’s going to tell Mike just a few words:  “Manhattan Project.  Los Alamos.  Trinity.”  Mike hands over the key.

When the lady villain, who has been warned away from the box with direct reference to Pandora, opens the box all the way, the bright light gets blindingly bright, and she can’t close it.  She catches on fire.  Mike and his lady friend run from the house to the beach and watch the house burn down.

I’m fascinated by this totally literal interpretation of ‘hot’ radiation as fire, real fire that gives people burn scars and burns down houses.  Some of the plot details strain credulity (did they really keep a kilo of uranium in a locker in the Hollywood Athletic Club?), but the film seemed like an excellent representation of real fear and paranoia about science in the atomic age.  I could even see the ending fifteen minutes or so being used in the classroom.

I made it back to the Cities in one piece after a pleasant (though rainy) weekend in DC.  Some highlights of the meeting/trip:

  • My friend’s apartment was around the corner from the place Fighting Bob LaFollette lived when he was a senator, in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood.
  • The TEMSIG (technology museum group) lunch meeting was a great opportunity to meet new folks and talk public history.  We’ll be launching a blog or listserv or some other communication network soon, so folks interested in the material culture of technology should watch this space for updates.
  • Smithsonian report:  I went to the Freer to see lovely art from the early Islamic world, and tried to go to the National Archives exhibits, but was thwarted by the huge line of tourists snaking around the corner.  I tragically did not have enough time to go to the National Museum of the American Indian, and, also tragically, the American History museum is closed this year.
  • I heard some excellent papers, including one from Kara Swanson on breast milk banks.
  • I went up to Walter Reed to visit the National Museum of Health and Medicine, which was instructive and about which I’ll have a lot to say here presently.
  • At the NMHM I saw the amputated leg of the Civil War general Daniel Sickles, which he visited at the museum yearly on the anniversary of his amputation.  This reminded me of the recent story on the interwebs about the woman visiting her own heart at the Wellcome; I believe I can find a number of other examples for an interesting research project.
  • With my friend who was in town for the papermakers’ conference, I met the terrific artist/physician Eric Avery, who was in town for yet another conference (bioethics, IIRC).  He’s a printmaker and also does really challenging art/medicine interventions, such as setting up an HIV clinic in the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard.
  • My own paper went well, and though one presenter had to drop out of my session, there were surprising resonances between my paper and that of Anne Schoenfeld of Pratt, who spoke about Make magazine, especially around movements to and from expertise and the gendering of public images of technologies; these connections were well commented on by Jennifer Alexander.  I was able to use my visit to the NMHM in my talk; they had a vial of Neosalvarsan, a syringe, and some needles on display in an arsenic exhibit, neatly proving my point about the needle symbolizing scientific medicine.  Thanks to all for the perceptive comments, and to Mary and Rhea for coming as well.

I’ll be at SHOT this weekend (the annual conference of the Society for the History of Technology) in DC.  I’ve never been to SHOT except when the meeting was co-located with HSS, so I’m excited to go to a new meeting and meet new folks.  A friend is in town for a different conference, and I’m staying with another friend, so I may be a bit scarce.  I will definitely be at the following, though:  TEMSIG meeting Friday noon, grad student breakfast at 7:30 on Saturday (who scheduled that?), and my paper at 9 am on Sunday.  I’ll also be visible around the conference as the short person wearing red.  I’d be delighted to meet friends from the history blogosphere.

About my paper:  It’s in session 53, and is called “Seeing and Selling the Syringe”–it’s about IV injection becoming the visual symbol of scientific medicine in progressive era America.  It is also a special sneak preview of 606 Will Save You!, otherwise known as Chapter 4 of my dissertation.

This week at the Midtown Farmers’ Market in Minneapolis, on whose Advisory Committee I sit, we’re having a Preserving the Harvest Day.  The market is at 22nd Ave and Lake St in Minneapolis, and is open 8-1 Saturdays and 3:30-7:30 Tuesdays. 

Here’s the info:

 There are just three Saturdays left at the Midtown Farmers Market, and this approachable, easy-to-shop asset — just a few convenient steps from the Hiawatha light rail line’s Lake Street stop — is continuing to lure browsers with special events right up to the end of the season.

This weekend, pickling diva Suzanne Fischer will be on hand, showing off her preserved bounty and coaching others in the canning and fermenting arts. At 10 a.m., Mike Phillips, chef at the nearby Craftsman, will demonstrate a few fall recipes using market vegetables and his trademark sauerkraut.

Hungry? Grazers can breakfast very, very well: andouille and smoked Polish sausages wrapped in buckwheat crepes and topped with pickle relish, onion confit or rhubarb ketchup at Creperie Mala, hot coffee and tamales at Fireroast Mountain Cafe’s adjacent stand and something sweet and delicious (including some of the best scones in town) at Real Bread. See you there.

Yes, that’s right.  I was called a pickling diva in the Star Tribune!  Thanks to Brett Laidlaw for saying it first.  See you Saturday! 

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