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Another article for my employer’s monthly publication Reference Notes:

Montgomery and the River Region: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow by Mary Ann Neely

Ref 976.1

As an educator, author, and scholarly writer, Mary Ann Neely has studied and lovingly documented Montgomery’s history for many years. She is a graduate of Alabama’s own Huntingdon College and Auburn University. As businesses and historic homes change hands, city landscapes are damaged and rebuilt by flood and fire, and philosophies for management of city resources have changed, Mary Ann Neely leads us through a whirlwind tour of Montgomery, Autauga, Elmore, Lowndes, and Macon Counties – and we don’t even have to brave the heat and tired aching feet to see it.

Her extensive knowledge of the history of our community is accompanied by old daguerreotypes of Montgomery then, and critically acclaimed photographer Robert Fouts’ images of Montgomery now. Mr. Fouts spoke alongside Ms Neely at the Alabama Center for the Book’s Book Festival this past April. His dedication for his work shone through. He noted the loving, extremely painstaking work of sorting, cataloging and preserving his mentor John E. Scott Jr’s extensive collection of historic photographs.

Mr. Fouts and Ms Neely then got themselves into many situations that were precarious at best in an effort to reproduce the angles and views in those old photos, to allow the reader to compare then and now. Stories of knocking at the doors of complete strangers in remote areas, ‘not really’ trespassing, and hanging precariously off of bridges or standing in traffic in an effort to get the exact shot added enjoyable detail to their description of the process of writing the book.

Each section of the book details the origins and growth of a section of our community. We see the inevitable losses of time—the Parkmore Drive in is now the site of Advance Auto Parts. Mothers will no longer purchase their daughters’ bridal trousseaux at Al Levy’s.

Court Square here in Montgomery has come a long way from the Wild West look of 1874 to its serene, small-scale urban look today. The “Hog-Wallow in the Square” became the graceful fountain decorated by Hebe, the Goddess of Youth and Cup-Bearer of the Gods, in 1885. Our current downtown revitalizations reflect a similar spirit of progress and awareness of the need for beautification of public places.

Driving around downtown Montgomery on one important errand or another, one might wonder about this or that landmark—the Commerce Street tunnel, for instance—but never have time to follow up on its significance. The tunnel flooded the basements of buildings along Commerce Street in 1929 and was closed for nearly fifty years. Restored and re opened nearly fifty years later, it is the gateway to the River and the Amphitheatre.

Painful moments in our community’s history are documented as well. The city’s effort to make ‘separate but equal’ truly equal after the 1901 constitution was sincere. Mayor William Teague ordered arrest of Montgomery Traction Company officials and employees who refused to create equal trolley routes for blacks. As we know now, this effort deteriorated into the conditions which led to the bus boycott of 1955. But today, improvements to the Court Square area have restored it to a more pedestrian friendly, graceful nod to the area’s original proportions and purposes.

Our riverfront, in 1898 piled high with muddy bales of cotton waiting to be shipped to Mobile, is now a place for outdoor recreation and city-sponsored entertainment.

In the second half of the book, Charles Barnette’s corporate profiles highlight the people and institutions who built our area from the frontier-like towns of 100 years ago to the growing metropolitan region we live in today. The history and the movers and shakers of businesses from hospitals to utilities to churches to higher education to industry remind us of where we’ve been and the potential in our future.

My only complaint about the book is that it leaves me hungry for even more details. As time passes, the marks of the personal and communal history of our community fade. How did the people live who rode those trolleys and built those businesses and boycotted those buses? What was the shipping business centered on our river like, and how much of it remains? How do our citizens live now, so that we can have a record for future books like this one? It would take several volumes, I am sure, for Ms Neely and Mr. Fouts to cover all the many, many changes to Montgomery and other neighborhoods and communities. I hope they are still working on it!

In closing, I quote Mary Ann Neely. She echoes my hunger for additional detail. On pages 19-20 she writes:

‘In some instances, there are images that may be disturbing where once elegant mansions or simpler cottages have given way to industrial sites, car lots, or vacant weed-infested fields, but in others there is a tree, a building, a view that instills that wondrous sense of continuity that gives the viewer such a satisfactory personal feeling of “I have been there, and I like what I see.” That is the purpose of this book—to give the reader the understanding that, yes, we have been there – that all humanity has connections with every other generation. Of course, we wear different clothes, travel in different vehicles, live in different houses, but look into the eyes of an individual in an old photograph, wonder how it felt to live in a dogtrot house in the winter, attend Tuskegee Institute in 1890, wade through Downtown Prattville in the flood of 1939. We are all a part of what we have met, either in this life or through the pictures that reflect the change and the continuity of Central Alabama’s unique and beautiful River Region.”

Life’s a labyrinth. Here’s the latest installment in my China fascination.

A few years ago my mom, in a fit of midlife growth, suddenly decided she would teach English in China for several months, two different times.

A Vancouver BC librarian contacted me out of the blue a few years ago, here in deepest Dixie (of all places!) for information about a young Chinese woman pilot whose small plane crashed here in the thirties.  A Chinese pilot? A woman? Here? In the oat field that eventually became part of the country club golf course?  My dear colleague’s labor of love, involving contacts with people all around the world, resulted in the book Sisters of Heaven.

Then my book group read Haruki Murakami’s Wind up Bird Chronicle, and in its explication of modern Japanese culture (beautiful, lyrical, gritty, mystical, meaningful, not in the least dry like “explication of modern Japanese culture” would imply) an old soldier details his days of cruelty and deprivation in Mongolia in the 30’s.

I love Amy Tan and Anchee Min. My women’s book group read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and had a wonderful discussion.  Is the mindset toward women and children nowadays really as different from the culture that produced footbinding as we like to think? 

So China’s been much on my mind. I’m drawn to it. I hoped to go teach there myself and take my little one with so that she could go to Chinese kindergarten, though I’m still ruminating on that. With a good job, bills to pay, a letter of entree into the magnet school, and concerns about what my little one would experience there as a girl child in a culture that seems to be very hard on children in general, I haven’t made a determination there yet.

Now my book groups are reading A Year Without Made in China.

At first glance this book seems like just another product of the bottom feeding confessional literary (unliterary) circus produced by blog culture. Everyone thinks there’s something universal and saleable about their personal experience–my huge life crisis and the ensuing three months in each of three countries learning about three life tasks, for example. I LOVED Eat Pray Love, so don’t think I consider this always a bad thing. I encourage everyone I meet to have their own blog if they never have before, because everyone should, must, express themselves, and I don’t like to think of anyone missing out on the exercise in regular writing and internet use that blogging offers. I blog constantly, and every time a book comes out, I think, why not me? My attempt to cook a gourmet meal every day for 365 days. My wry, defiant chronicle of my failures in my first years as a mom (my blogging attempts fall under that category).

I just feel uneasy about it as really good writing/reading.

Anyway, A Year is a pleasant read. The author and her family are likeable– I like her even more because she’s a southern writer! and her work reflects the social trend toward more responsible, or at least more informed, consumption. But I wanted more. Everybody knows Made in China = Bad.  I wanted to know, exactly what is the problem with buying Chinese-made goods? 

I’m a huge Marxist– as in, I believe every human being deserves the basics of food, shelter, education, family, community, work, and the arts. When people do not have access to these, crime and criminal social injustice and cruelty ensue. Children are starving, being separated from their parents, starving, losing out on education, whether in Darfur or in the heart of urban America. I follow with a mixture of admiration and heartbreak the stories of nations and rulers who have at least paid lip service to the idea of each according to ability and need.

But paradoxically, and I hate to admit it, I believe (for lack of a better paradigm, but I’d be glad for someone to give me one) in a sort of Darwinist way that the developing world inevitably must go through the same paroxysms of cruelty and inhumanity that England and the US went through during the industrial revolution before we arrived at our (at least for most of us) comfortable standard of living.  I read once upon a time that if every single person in developing countries made just two dollars a day, they could eat and have shelter and some human standard of comfort. And the way to make this happen, the way for folks in developing nations to attain a standard of living somewhere above poverty is capitalism.  As companies from industrialized nations come in to purchase Chinese parts and products, they are (to varying degree) imposing more, um, American standards for safety, wages, and time.

Easy for me to say… living years after the industrial revolution, feeding at the public trough, in an air conditioned office, living beyond my means instead of recognizing how many have so little, how blessed I am to have all that I do, and saving up for a rainy day.  But I have the bourgeois luxury of musing on it from my armchair, and I think it’s my duty to at least think about it and try to make conscious choices in what I buy.

So where is China on that industrial paroxysm continuum, then?

Alexandra Harney does a good job of documenting the price for Chinese ascendance. In The China Price  she offers tons of documented facts, personal stories of Chinese workers and factory managers, and knowledgable commentary about the cultural context. She manages not to weigh in emotionally, although she does assign responsibility.

Chinese workers, most very young or with impoverished families to support, are killed and maimed due to horrible working conditions. Cancer villages and widow towns dot the Chinese landscape. Chinese pollution shows up on the West coast of the US. Chinese factory managers, whose hours are just as inhumane and whose pay is often just as low– or their personal funds are drained in their hope of staying afloat– use a numbers game and falsified documents to try to appear to be adhering to fair labor standards, because to adhere to fair labor standards would drive the factory out of business, and many officials charged with making sure fair labor and safety standards are in place turn a blind eye. Wal Mart’s inevitable and witless commentary is present as well.

Many Chinese workers and their families have turned to studying the law and combining forces to sue for benefits after injuries. The seeds of something better appear to be planted and sprouting, slowly. But according to Harney, we all pay The China Price.

The responsibility lies as much with the global consumer as with Beijing, she asserts. If the Chinese government spent as much time and energy policing factories as it does political dissidence, they could eradicate most if not all criminal abuses of workers and maintain China’s place in the world market. But our, the consumer’s, appetite for the cheapest goods is an equal contributor. In other words, if we as individuals are not part of the solution, we are part of the problem.

So bravo, Sara Bongiorni!

I look forward to seeing how our book club discussions shape up.

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