‘Death to Jews’ hamlet row in France

‘Death to Jews’ hamlet row in France http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-28764207

Z is trying something new today. Today’s post, geographic naming.

A hamlet in France is known in French as “Death to Jews” or Mort aux Juifs. The name has, again, attracted attention with calls from various organizations to rename the place.

Oddly named places stirring up controversy aren’t new. U.S. states Alaska and Ohio are in a tussle over the name of Mt. McKinley named for an Ohio-born president. Alaska is pressing for the name Denali, from a deity among Alaskan tribes.

And there are other less savory names that have been the subject of controversy. Canada, in 1961, renamed Nigger Creek in British Columbia to Negro Creek.

To Z Geography more effort should be expended in community outreach and development not in, potentially,  bringing litigation against communities. Changing the name of a place doesn’t address prejudice.

What it does do is erase human history. That’s the other lesson, these place names are an important record of things that we should never forget, lest we return to the bad old days of Crusades and purges.

A marathon

Today your Geographer is running his first marathon.

By way of honoring this event, Z would like to relate the story (thanks to wikipedia, of course) of why running 26.2 miles is called a “marathon.”

The popular story goes something like this: following the battle of Marathon, the Greeks who had just defeated a Persian army, sent a runner to Athens to report the felicitous news. The battle of Marathon is acknowledged as the turning point in that first conflict between the Persian Empire and Greek city states. Athens is approximately 25 miles (about 40 kilometers) from the plain of Marathon. Upon reaching the city and shouting out the good news, the runner promptly fell over and died.

As wikipedia tells it (with a pair of sources who are second hand sources themselves) this popular story is actually a conflation of two stories surrounding the battle. There was a runner, Pheidippides, carrying a message. However, he left Athens as the Athenian army left for Marathon. Pheidippides covered 140 miles (225 km.) to reach Sparta the day after he left (otherwise known as ultrarunning) and bade the Spartans to make haste for Marathon to assist. As the heavens would have it, the Spartans were observing a religious festival requiring peace and would be unable to march until the following full moon (some days later). Following the battle, the Athenian army marched back the 25 miles back to Athens from the battlefield at Marathon. The Athenians marched quickly, they were carrying gear and were probably exhausted, in an attempt to reach Athens before the Persian fleet could Cape Sounion (to the south). If the Persians rounded the cape, they could have conceivably landed the survivors directly in Athens – since the city was undefended with the army in Marathon. As you may have guessed, the Athenians reached the city first.

Thus, our modern marathons (eventually set at 26 miles, 385 yards or 42.195 km.) commemorate the Athenian army’s march and race against the Persians.

National Myth Making and Geography: Tarle-who?

Geographers, like Historians, sometimes have the unenviable task of informing the general public that their field of study is beyond the question of “What?” Upon learning we’re Geographers, a common question posed is “How interesting! What’s the capital of ______?” Often, we smile, nod, and either a.) answer the question b.) politely inform our questioner that there is more to the social science than where things are located or c.) roll our eyes and walk away. Historians, undoubtedly, are probably asked all manners of questions – “Hey! Do you know about the French Revolution?” or “Hey! What year did America declare its independence?!”

To be sure, the question of “WHERE?!” is central to geo-graphy (writing about the world). But that’s only the first step. “Real” Geography, if I may be so bold, involves deriving knowledge and information from this raw data. Why is it data? And who cares that it’s there anyway? In other words, what does it mean – why does it matter? Below is a graphic illustrating these ideas, via Z Geography’s world map!

Geographic Knowledge and Education (via ME!)

Geographic Knowledge and Education (via ME!)

A bit of boring background on the genesis of this post. I’ve been wanting to write it for some time, not only is it Z Geography’s first foray into field research (!!!) but it’s also a wonderful topic to illustrate these geographic knowledge and education arguments.

National myth making, short-hand for the process in which the imagined community (hat tip to Anderson) is created, is also a geographic process. The objective, of course, is to create and solidify “the nation”. That community of individuals, whom you will never meet everyone, but with whom you share an identity, perhaps you’ll join the military and protect them, or you’ll head over to the pub in the expatriate district of Minsk for a quick drink in familiar surroundings. The “nation” is not only socially defined by geographically, there are places, boundaries, and areas more “sacred” than others. In the United States, we have our own.

A few weeks ago Z Geography popped on south to visit the Yorktown battlefield near Yorktown, VA, site of a British surrender to an allied American-French army in 1781. General Cornwallis’ surrender eventually led to the Treaty of Paris and the attainment of the colonies’ independence (huzzah!).

U.S. Second Siege Line (Yorktown, VA via ME!)

U.S. Second Siege Line (Yorktown, VA via ME!)

(formerly) British Redoubts (Yorktown, VA via ME!)

(formerly) British Redoubts (Yorktown, VA via ME!)

As we can see from the above the battlefield is well maintained. The siege lines, which the Americans and French used to creep closer to the British defensive positions at Yorktown come complete with cannon and mortars. The formerly British redoubts are also maintained though the timber “stakes” have a steel rebar center. The more interesting noteworthy item is the location of the visitor’s center. Smack in the middle of the British defensive lines. Take that lobsterbacks! Not only did you surrender but our tourists can now saunter through your lines!

In effect, the public preservation of the battlefield at Yorktown protects and bolsters the national story – and the myth. The place of Yorktown is commemorated and preserved so that all Americans (and other tourists) can see the place where our independence was won. That Cornwallis surrendered here is well known, less well known is the second garrison, across the York River at Gloucester Point.

The British position at Gloucester Point was commanded by none other than Banastre Tarleton. Depending on your depth of knowledge (and your location) you may have had one of three reactions, 1.) Tarle-who? 2.) ah ok, I know him or 3.) that bastard! Tarleton is a controversial historical figure (as noted in his Wikipedia page). For Z Geography’s purposes, it is sufficient to know that he was an effective commander, accused of atrocities at the Battle of Waxhaws, and absolutely despised by a number of Colonial Americans (particularly Virginians). These accusations persist to the present. What is most interesting is that Tarleton’s command was not at risk of falling to the Americans and French, who were mostly across the river at Yorktown, besieging the main British army under Cornwallis. As pointed out in 1781: The decisive year of the Revolutionary War, Cornwallis had earlier intended on sneaking across to Gloucester Point and attempting a breakout and that most of the remaining British naval assets were on the Gloucester side of the river.

Regardless, Cornwallis included the Gloucester Point garrison within the terms of surrender. Noting that the garrison wasn’t about to fall, Tarleton’s troops were permitted to march out with drawn sabers before being disarmed.

With Clinton sailing from New York to Yorktown a week before Cornwallis surrendered, Tarleton’s continued garrison of Gloucester Point is an interesting “what-if” scenario. Thus, while the victory at Yorktown was complete in the sense that Cornwallis surrendered both positions, Gloucester Point is somewhat, hollow. The surrender terms acknowledge this, Tarleton was permitted to march with saber drawn. In this way, Tarleton maintained his status as the British equivalent to Francis Marion, a perpetual thorn in the side of the colonials.

From a geographic perspective, the national myth is seen in comparing the pristine condition of the Yorktown Historical Battlefield with the town across the river. In contrast, Gloucester Point offers no acknowledgement that Banastre Tarleton bested the rebels one final time, save one:

Tarleton Historical Marker (Gloucester Point, VA via ME!)

Tarleton/O’Hara Historical Marker (Gloucester Point, VA via ME!)

Incidentally, Z Geography is fairly certain that O Hara road is named for Charles O’Hara, Cornwallis’ second-in-command. O’Hara officially surrendered the British Army at Yorktown to Benjamin Lincoln (Washington’s second-in-command).

Places and Spaces: Filling Empty Spaces

This is the final post in a short series on the issue of “place.” Place and space are sometimes used in interchangeably, but less so recently. If you think about it, you can reason why. “Place” has connotations of significance to the people who use it. “Space” could have these same connotations, but the word itself implies a sort of nothingness: think outer space. Through this short series of posts, I’ll be emphasizing the importance of examining your own world in terms of its places and spaces. This has more implications than just academic, if you do commit to understanding places and spaces you can begin to change them and make them “better.” For an introduction to this series, click here.

In this post, we explore efforts to make spaces into places. As we saw in the second post (here) a consequence of our (the “West’s”) obsession/dependence upon automobile-borne transportation, particularly private forms, has been literal and figurative dead spaces. Spaces where nothing grows and no one goes.

One hallmark of humanity is that we do try to improve our surroundings, not only functionally but aesthetically. Of course, aesthetically pleasing places are usually tied to affluence (thanks politics!). The pictures below were all taken in Arlington, Virginia and highlight the in-between nature between places and spaces. I don’t have a clever word to describe these spots. Splace? There we go, splace. It sounds kind of silly and amorphous, which is what these splaces are.

Art under an Underpass, Arlington, VA (via ME!)

Art under an Underpass, Arlington, VA (via ME!)

Colored Columns, Arlington, VA (via ME!)

Colored Columns, Arlington, VA (via ME!)

The two pictures above are…interesting. The first depicts art underneath a freeway overpass. I don’t know how I would feel about my artwork being relegated to an area under an underpass, countless motorists passing over your work, 99% not realizing that they’re speeding over it. As a pedestrian I suppose I appreciate the sentiment, this is on the way to the grocery store for me, but do I ever stop to admire this? No. And it’s not la gallery where the work is rotated occasionally. And if it is than I’m also making my point. I don’t stop here, I’m underneath an overpass. The second just makes me laugh whenever I run by it. Colored columns. Recently, a friend observed that it this was affluent-place behavior. I have to agree, spending money to paint overpass-support columns. Incidentally, these dead spaces end up housing the very things that birth their existence – automobiles.

An...underpark? Arlington, VA (via ME!)

An…underpark? Arlington, VA (via ME!)

And then there’s the picture at left. A park built under an overpass. It’s quite curious. I still don’t know if it’s a good idea. My friend and I visited this splace (since its right across from the colored columns above) and didn’t quite know what to make of it. I certainly doesn’t help that the building outside the shot produces a loudish buzzing. No grass. No trees. Nothing, except some benches, a trashcan, and a lot of rocks. I wouldn’t spend time here, but there are quite a few cigarette butts lying about so I guess that’s one use for this splace.

Despite these futile attempts at creating a livable place, there are some notable mentions.

Park Row, Arlington, VA (via ME!)

Park Row, Arlington, VA (via ME!)

Roadside Gym, Arlington, VA (via ME!)

Roadside Gym, Arlington, VA (via ME!)

The two photos above show some notable splaces. On the left is a row of benches and greenspace just outside a very tall hotel. While a wonderful idea, benches and greenspace, rather than have the benches face the green grass they face…a blank building wall. The roadside gym is actually a great idea. There is an on-ramp in this shot but it’s wonderfully obscured in most places by trees. There’s a basketball hoop, a running trail, and outdoor exercise equipment making it a place for fitness. When I’m in the area I routinely see people at the basketball hoops or sitting on the benches, relaxing.

There are some lessons to be drawn from these photos and I have been harping on these concepts throughout the series. The importance of green space. We’ve spent most of our evolutionary history outdoors, in and among greenery. I know (but can’t cite a reference) that some studies of urban workers (in Finland) found that the happiest and most stress free took frequent vacations or lunch breaks to “natural areas”, whether further in a “rural area” or in a park. Similarly, others kept pictures and paintings of greenery in their cubicles – to remind them of life outside a building. Green space needs good lighting. As we’ve spent most of our time outdoors, we’ve invariably spent it in the sun (we get vitamins from that star too). Freeway underpasses can never, ever be a place for humans. There’s no light and no green.