Monday, June 30, 2014

Curator vs. Nature

by Erin Doane, Curator

This weekend we officially opened our newest exhibit, Locally Grown: Farming in Chemung County.  This exhibit highlights historic dairying, poultry raising, and tobacco and celery cultivation in the area.  It also features information on modern farming, community gardens, and local farm stands and markets.  We even have our own farm stand within the gallery – Mammoth Acres – where kids can load up their baskets with play vegetables and learn some math at the same time.  Locally Grown will be open through September so come check it out.

Locally Grown: Farming in Chemung County
As part of this exhibit, we decided to install raised garden beds outside the museum.  We are using these small beds to present three different types of gardens: a three sisters garden, a Victorian garden, and a pizza garden.  The idea was that people could see how different combinations of vegetables were grown in different time periods.  I hoped to myself that at the end of it all we would have enough produce to maybe host an event with dishes made from these very local vegetables.  Well, you know the saying about counting your chickens before they hatch.  Mother Nature does not seem to care about what I hope.

Raised garden beds outside the Museum
 A few months ago I started some celery seeds in my office.  Celery was a major product of Horseheads at one time so we all agreed that we needed celery in our Victorian garden.  The seedlings were a bit spindly when it was time to transplant them but they held their own that first week outside.  Then a heavy rainstorm came and crushed them into the ground.  There were no survivors.  Thank goodness for the “insurance” celery plant I had purchased at a local greenhouse (just in case the ones I started didn't make it).
Celery seedlings
"Insurance" celery
 Heavy rains have not been the only thing to damage the plants.  I seem to be in a war with the local squirrels.  At first, everything seemed fine but then one day I pulled into the parking lot at the museum and noticed that the soil in the garden beds was disturbed.  I patted it all back down again and was pleased when the corn and beans in the three sisters garden began sprouting a short time later. 
Three sisters garden before the attack
 Just days later when I came to work, though, all the corn and half the beans had been dug up out of the ground.  I should have known that squirrels like corn so that was my own fault for not taking preemptive steps.  I replanted the corn and beans and sprinkled a good dose of cayenne pepper onto the soil above them.  I’ve heard that squirrels do not like hot pepper.  Well, they didn’t dig up the corn again but they did attack the peas and (horrors!) tore off part of the celery plant.  I can tell you that at this point I was not too happy.  I was even more unhappy when a night of rain washed away the pepper and my second batch of corn sprouts were dug up as well.  So, now we have a third batch of corn started with a formidable barrier of pepper.  Some women carry pepper spray in their purses.  I carry a jar of cayenne pepper!
Have some cayenne pepper, squirrels!
 Call me an optimist, but I’m hoping I have finally won the war.  The next step would be to fence in the garden beds but that just doesn’t fit into my aesthetic vision.  We’ll just have to wait and see what happens as the summer wears on.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Persistent Problem of Housing Discrimination

by Rachel Dworkin, archivist

In a recent issue of The Atlantic. Ta-Nehisi Coates presented “The Case for Reparations.”  Coates argued in favor of monetary reparations for historical injustices committed against African-Americans.  While he touched briefly on things like slavery and Jim Crow, his primary focus was on 20th century housing discrimination in big cities like Chicago.  You don’t have to go too far afield, however, to find a history of housing discrimination.

In the decades after the Civil War, hundreds of newly freed Blacks came to Elmira and settled on the Eastside in an area known as Slabtown.  (There was also a handful who settled on the Southside).  Slabtown was a decidedly working-class neighborhood filled with shoddily-constructed homes and tenements.  The neighborhood was bounded by the Lackawanna Railroad on the north, East Clinton Street in the south, Lake Street on the east and State Street on the west.  Initially, the inhabitants of Slabtown were a mix of African-Americans and poor immigrant from Ireland, Italy and Eastern Europe, but whites abandoned the area as their finances improved.  Blacks, meanwhile, were often prevented from buying or renting homes outside of the area.  There they built a community with organizations, churches and businesses owned by and catering to African-Americans. 

Map of Elmira's eastside
Dickinson St., 1880s
During and immediately after World War II, Elmira was flooded with people looking to work in the city’s many factories.  This created a serious housing shortage.  In order to alleviate the difficulties, the city built Hoffman Plaza (1941) in the west, Hathorn Court (1943) in the north and Jones Court (1953) on the eastside.  Jones Court was initially authorized in 1942, but construction did not begin until 1950 and it was not occupied until 1953.  While Hathorn Court was built on sparsely inhabited land across from Woodlawn Cemetery, Jones Court was built right in the heart of the city’s African-American community.  In order to build it, the city seized and demolished homes, businesses and one of the city’s oldest black church.  The African-American community was both literally and figuratively gutted by the project. 

Construction of Jones Court, 1951

Throughout the 1950s, preference in housing at Hoffman Plaza and Hathorn Court was given to white veterans.  Blacks, meanwhile, could only live at Jones Court.  Because there were only 86 apartments at Jones Court (verses the 250 at Hathorn Court), this meant that there was often a long backlog of Blacks looking for affordable public housing.   In 1960, Elmira’s African-American community waged a successful campaign to open up the city’s public housing units to people of all races.  It was still a few years before any Blacks actually moved in.

Jones Court, 2014

Today, there are laws against that sort of explicit discrimination in public housing.  Still, the problem of discrimination in the private home-buying and rental markets persist nationwide.  African-Americans are also often caught between so-called respectable banks which regularly deny mortgages to minorities and the predatory practices of sub-prime lenders.   In Elmira, Jones Court is an empty, deselect eyesore.   Do we owe the victims of housing discrimination restitution?  Maybe, but, first and foremost, we owe it to them to fix our broken system.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Elephants in Elmira

by Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

In 1851, teenage Chemung County resident Milton Partridge lamented in his journal about the elephants in a traveling show he had just seen. His complaint?  They had advertised 10 elephants and there were actually only 7 at the show.
Elephants on parade in Chemung County
By the mid-19th century, elephants held a strange place in American culture.  They were exotic yet familiar, dangerous yet a source of family entertainment.  In an era before television or the Internet, people's knowledge of elephants could come from only a few sources: word of mouth, information from books or other written materials, or first hand experience.  Elephants, with their size, lack of a similar species on the American continents (not counting the long extinct mammoths and mastodons), and ability to learn novel tricks, were a great source of curiosity for many Americans. 

The enterprising businessmen who created and ran traveling shows fed this curiosity.  While elephants were first exhibited in America in the 1700s, their popularity and availability exploded in the 19th century.  When circuses came to a town, it was not uncommon for them to hold a parade down the main street as a form of free advertising for their shows.  Elephants were a big part (pun intended) of these parades.  Due to the rapid expansion of railroads, one show could bring dozens of elephants to a city.  Elephants frequently came to Elmira as a part of shows and marched down Water Street.
Elephants on Water Street

While elephants brought much joy and excitement to the places they visited, the traveling show circuit was a brutal place for elephants.  As with any wild animal, captivity and being forced to perform breeds many problems (see my blog about the Eldridge Park bear pit for another example).  Imagine the conditions for elephants forced to travel long distances in rail cars, only to be chained, loaded and unloaded in various cities and then put on display in front of large, loud crowds.  For these incredibly intelligent and social animals, this could understandably be unbearable.
An elephant chained by the tusks
Some elephants were also subjected to more grotesque forms of treatment (or mistreatment).  Jumbo, an elephant captured in Africa as a baby and purchased by P.T. Barnum, was hit and killed by a train in 1885.  Elephants were sometimes executed for killing people.  Topsy was electrocuted (at the suggestion of Thomas Edison) in 1903 for killing her trainer after she suffered years of abuse.  This spectacle was filmed.  The film still exists.  It is incredibly disturbing.

I'm not saying that the elephants who passed through Chemung County had as violent an existence and end as Topsy, Jumbo, or the many others like them, but it is important to recognize the inhumane treatment, past and even still in the present, suffered by animals in the name of entertainment.  Elephants were a great sight to see as they paraded through the streets and took up residency at fairgrounds, but this spectacle did come at a cost.