As I read about the America Eats Project, I wondered if this was an early form of the food critic. Up until then there was no accepted position of a writer who wrote about food as non fiction. Food was food. If your friend said it was good you might eat it, but there was no market for celebrity judging. Now, the writers engaged in the WPA were not serving as critics, but as documenters, trying to preserve American traditions. Like the State tourism guides they helped to enforce the folklore of America. While they various regional food groups still do exist, there is much more overlap, especially in New York. And fast food chains, or chains in general have made it possible to go to the opposite side of the country and get exactly the same food you could have gotten a block from your house. Andrew Gross, in “The American Guide Series: Patriotism as name brand Identification” makes some great points about the WPA state guides which I think could easily be translated to the food guides. By making these traditional food stuffs, often based on the various levels of colonialism and immigration which occurred combined with the climate and local foods, into things to go try out, America eats made them something to be discovered, a meal to be conquered. It was no longer just what some populations in the area ate, it was what every one in that region ate all the time. People in Maine only ate lobster. People in New Orleans only at Gumbo. This is obviously just untrue, but it works like commercial advertising for clothing. All the cool kids wear this style or that designer. Anyways, Gross makes a number of good arguments, but also gives some of this history behind the WPA guides and connects them to other guides and books including Nathan Asch’s The Road: In Search of America. “The unregulated highway is a symbol of laissez-faire economics and a society that cares for profits over people; it is also the geographical complement to Texas' sprawling suburbs.” (gross)
I consider myself something of a New England enthusiast…Having grown up in the same room, in the same house, in the same town, in the same state my entire life, it is completely central to who I am. I grew up in Hopkinton, MA, and went to Nantucket every single year of my life, including when I was in my mother’s abdomen. I went skiing annually for over 10 years on Sugarloaf Mountain, near Bangor, ME, and have the mountain nearly memorized. New England, for me, is a place I know well, a place I can measure my life and growth by, and a place I can measure time for the world outside myself by. I read the entire WPA guide, called “Here’s New England!” with incredible interest. Most of the photographs were of places I have been, places that still look the same…a covered bridge in Maine, harbors and docks off of Cape Cod, the town of Marblehead, the streets of Cambridge. I also have a book, published in the 1980’s, called “Nantucket Then and Now,” with side-by-side black and white photographs of places in Nantucket in the late 1800’s and in the early 1980’s. It wasn’t the most successful topic for a book, or maybe it was… all of the photographs look the same. It is as though nothing has changed. The tips in the WPA guide remain legitimate. There are still pies and cider where it says there are. The same roads are beautiful. You should still drive to Provincetown and it is still mostly sand and very surreal. I’m unsure if this speaks to the timelessness of the WPA guides or the timelessness of my homeland. Hopefully both, definitely one. My enthusiasm and longing for Massachusetts is a point of ridicule for my New York City inhabiting friends. My love of barns and disdain for NYC’s “fake autumn” are two others. And this guide speaks to nearly all of it. To talk about the reasons one loves New England is to sound like an antiques collector, like someone who burns vanilla candles in jars in their salt-box colonial house. When someone who loves New England tells you what road to drive and they ask you why, it will probably either be because of a view of trees/lakes/ancient houses or because of some historical significance. And it sounds absurd and outdated and charicaturish- because it seems to me like New England is the only place that has stayed this way for so long. I’ve met so few people who love their hometowns in the same weird historical way that I do. That love their areas because they look the same way they did so so long ago, and rarely because of artificial preservation and “historical societies.” Mostly because people just still enjoy living in old houses and barns. And hanging out in forests, and having dangerous roads, and having creaky furniture, and eating cranberries, and growing cranberries, and picking apples with their families. It’s not an effort to get back to our colonial past – it is the present. Somehow us people still like these things. That was a digression. What I’m trying to say is, reading this WPA guide made me think about the reasons I love New England, and that people have loved New England for the same reasons since 1930. And before. It wasn’t a sudden attraction a-la Disney World, or cheap subdivision prices, or the presence of celebrities, or anything new that could be placed anywhere. Perhaps everyone, reading about their homes, felt these things. I hope so. I don’t know how they could (sorry, my colonial Plymouth-rock snarkiness and pride is coming through) but I hope they do. Because then, unlike any Lonely Planet or Frommers ever could, the WPA succeeded in getting down to WHAT IT REALLY IS that makes these places, these places. The good and the bad. But what really matters, living there, to the people who grew up there. They seemed to ask the people who knew, or have been the people who knew. The good friend you want to have when you visit someplace, so you know that you’re seeing everything that a real person-who-lives-in-that-place-and-is-tied-to-it loves. For better and for worse. Thanks, WPA. Hire me next time you need someone to write about Massachusetts.
These WPA guides have really struck me. I mentioned in class that I found a Texas WPA guide in my Great Uncle’s library and took it with me on a trip to Big Bend. I blew through the history section as if it was a novel. And I hung on each word. Unlike the travel guides today, whose concern is the travel, these guides seem more concerned with the content and with the cities, towns or states of which they write. Sometimes the difference is slight and only in tone, but these guides do read as much like texts about a place as guides for travelers.
An example of this are these history chapters. The New Orleans guide talks about the city’s history with the excitement of a historian, rather than that of a travel editor. And it isn’t as broad as one might assume. It gets quite detailed. It mentions not only the history, but how we’ve learnt it. It mentions not only events but people and their motives. As the Texas guide told in detail the personal history of Stephen Austin, the New Orleans guide tells of the numerous colonists of the region. And it’s not mere exposition of history—it actually goes into scene. Take this, for example:
“At 7:30 P.M. the ‘Carolina’ sidled up to the levee and opened fire upon the unsuspecting British as they were cooking supper and preparing their bivouacs. Confusion reigned as the redcoats put out their fires and ran for shelter behind a secondary levee. Simultaneously, Jackson and Coffee advanced to the attack. In the hand-to-hand combat in the dark, in which bayonets, tomahawks, hunting knives, and fists were used to advantage, the Tennesseans made murderous inroads on the British right flank, although Jackson’s charge was met with stubborn resistance. After two hours’ fighting a heavy fog terminated the battle, neither side having gained any decisive advantage.”
It goes on like this for more than thirty pages.
I’ve always found the history of a land or people to be the best way to engage fully with it. But history can be boring and dry and often shallow. Though it’s difficult to read it without questioning the age of some of the facts, I would be inclined to use these guides as a history for all the places I travel in the future. The length is ideal, the depth a good medium, and the writing in all that I have read is colorful and engaging. I can’t help but wonder why more care isn’t put into travel guides anymore. It seems they are more about the traveler than about the place. Often they feel essentially like maps in list form, giving addresses and phone number and prices of hotels or restaurants or attractions. One could likely swap out the names in one Lonely Planet and they would be the same everywhere: this place is swanky, this is a dive, this restaurant has great deserts, etc. I’d rather have more literary narratives that the WPA guides provide and a map that marks locations. Guides ought to do more than just accommodate their readers, they really ought to help familiarize a traveler with a more complete and rounded knowledge of their surrounding.
Browsing through the WPA Guides to the states, I noticed that a number of the books have chapters on folklore, and so I figured comparing these might be a good way to look at the differing characters and values of the states. Much of the Midwestern states' folk tales are similar, exaggerated Bunyanesque stories about impossibly immense fields, crops, and animals, and the superhuman local heroes that tended them.
The most interesting of these characters for me was Nebraska's Febold Feboldson, who, among other feats, “spent fifteen years breeding eagles with bees until he had bees as big as eagles”. (106) Another good one is Hels Helsen, “The Big Swede”, who fights Paul Bunyan in an epic battle that shatters an inverted mountain, the debris of which formed the Black Hills. (South Dakota Guide, 80-82) Cowboys are also a common theme, their exploits wildly exaggerated, with many real figures like “Wild Bill” Hickock appearing in numerous guidebooks. The Iowa guidebook notes that many of the folktales are essentially embellishments of local historical events. Many of the more fanciful stories in Iowan folklore were apparently lurid and macabre tales about Indians, and “Local residents point out cliffs where Indian maidens leaped to their death until it would seem that the first duty of all Indian girls was to jump off cliffs.” (82)
Kentucky has some particularly interesting folklore, typified by “a sense of something evil”, often involving gambling with the Devil, possession and witchcraft. (90) I couldn't find much further in the South or on the West Coast, mostly due to a dearth of guidebooks available online. The California guide, though it lacks a folklore section, does mention San Francisco's Joshua Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, a real person who needs no folkloric embellishment. (284) New England, however, is well-represented, with Maine, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island guides all bearing tales, many about Indians, particularly in the context of white settlement, pirates, and especially witches and ghosts. Many of the stories are moralistic, though their tones range from spooky to quite funny.
My favorite, though, is from my own home state of New Jersey: the infamous Jersey Devil, also known as the Leeds Devil. This creature was born to a Mrs. Leeds, who, unhappy about having a child, “in a petulant moment, cried out that she hoped the stork would bring a devil.” (126) What she ended up getting was a strange beast whose characteristics vary widely depending on the storyteller, but which the guide describes as “Cloven-hoofed, long-tailed, and white; with the head of a collie dog, the face of a horse, the body of a kangaroo, the wings of a bat, and the disposition of a lamb”. (126) And indeed, despite his maybe-frightening appearance, the Jersey Devil is by many accounts shy, curious, and even an intellectual: one report states that he was writing a thesis, A Plutonian Critique of Some Awful Aspects of the Terrestrial Life. Other accounts I have read depict him as only having a few friends, all of them ghosts, who he occasionally takes tea with. What this says about New Jersey, I have no idea.
There is no other place on earth right now that is as cool as Williamsburg, Brooklyn, except maybe Berlin, but they don’t speak English over there. As painful as it is to say, Williamsburg is home to thousands and thousands of youngsters who all look similar in their efforts to be different, and also generate a template for many young people’s fashion agenda and/or plans for the future. Bands shoot out of Williamsburg like a barrage of bullets to the blogs of America ready to snatch them up and review them. It seems every trend happens in a heartbeat in Brooklyn. One moment you’re sizing up a deer head to put above your non-working fireplace, and the next you’re cutting square holes in your grandpa’s jeans from the 1940’s. The WPA guide couldn’t have possibly seen this as an outcome for Williamsburg in the 1930’s. The “North Brooklyn” section of the guide serves more as a warning then an encouraging guide, with only four points of interest, one being a housing project for the less affluent members of depression society. In a time where the Statue of Liberty was the Goddess of Liberty, Broadway was the nation’s thoroughfare, Chinatown could be described as “little”, the Lower East Side as a “slum” and Sheridan Square was the center of the universe, going to Williamsburg was about as cool as a trip to the dentist’s office. The shining star of the list of four sights worth seeing in the WPA guide is the Wallabout Market. This star has since extinguished, but at its height, it was the world’s second largest market. The goods here were mostly food oriented, and was a hot destination for the adjoining farmland owners to sell their crop to the hungry masses. As soon as the war hit, the market was wiped out by the expansion of the Navy Yards. Another “attraction” was the Williamsburg houses, which were lauded in the book as Williamsburg’s saving grace: a huge housing project with very well recorded statistics. It seems the readers of the WPA might be put at ease to know that New York cared about those down and out members of the big apple. Then came the moment of prophesy I’d hoped for: journalist TF Hamlin declares: “In every really important matter of land usage—in air, in light, in a sense of green and growing things…in the creation of an atmosphere of humanity and dignity…[this development] has qualities that no money can buy.” Indeed, Mr. Hamlin, the air is nicer here, as I type beside my window, looking out at a dense grapevine clinging to the chain link fence that lets me see into my polish neighbor’s yard. Maybe Williamsburg hasn’t changed. It really depends on what you consider to be the dregs of society. In the 1930’s it was poor people. Maybe today it’s hipsters. Either way, the ‘burg proves to be a quiet, peaceful sanctuary where youngsters like myself can still have a good time.
Over the course of the 20th century, two men did more to change the staples of the standard American diet than anyone: Henry Agard Wallace and Earl Butz. Wallace served as the Secretary of Agriculture from 1933 to 1940, the critical years of the Depression. He, under "Roosevelt's" Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, began the enlightened policy of subsidized farming--specifically, paying farmers not to grow crops. He advocated, at a time when millions of the country's citizens were out of work, starving, scrambling to find any means necessary to feed a family, the wasting of any remaining surplus: the arbitrary slaughtering and disposing of livestock, uprooting fields to destroy the crop. He, too, revolutionized agricultural genetics; his scientific advancements developed a hybrid corn that was to be the dominant corn crop grown in the country for decades, and a fast-laying chicken eventually responsible for producing almost all the eggs in the country. Decades later, Earl Butz (Secretary of Agriculture under both Nixon and Ford) restructured the New Deal policies, in times of relative American prosperity. Rather than regulate crop output, he advocated hyper-productivity, advising farmers to "get big or get out." Under Butz's direct influence, not only did surplus explode, but, thanks to the developments on Wallace's genetically-engineered food sources, the combination created modern industrialized farming: a few farmers ever-expanding, growing indestructible crops, resistant to the natural cycles and livestock so different from a natural form that a single animal literally cannot live nor function without human technology. And the result is, ironically, massive corporations driving the independent farmers out of business and off their land. Sound familiar?
Depending upon the sort of New Yorker one is talking to, Inwood is either where Columbia University plays its football games, or it is the area that lies below the south anchor of the Henry Hudson Bridge, or it is ultimate stop on the A train. In all cases, it is the narrow northern tip of Manhattan, a place where midtown cab drivers don’t know where it is or believe that Payson Avenue or Cumming Street or Indian Road exists. Many people reject that Inwood is really part of Manhattan, and this probably stems from the state of mind depicted in the W.P.A. Guide to New York City, published in the 1930's. It said that Inwood's ''rivers and hills insulate a suburban community that is as separate an entity as any in Manhattan.''
Although change is clearly afoot, Inwood retains many of the characteristics it had when it was intensively developed in the 30's. Before that, it had been unfolding much as expected by Frederick Law Olmsted and his partner, J. James R. Croes, who in a plan submitted in 1876, envisioned it as a residential neighborhood for ''fairly comfortable people.'' Some of the comfortable buildings of earlier times, still bearing faint letters offering ''steam heat and hot water'' and other amenities, are in trouble now. At least two old buildings are being rehabilitated privately and others bear plaques noting rehabilitation with tax aid. But the low-rise and light density character persists. Tucked among the low rises are one-and two-family houses with trees and tiny yards.
The neighborhood bubbles with children and schools: Good Shepherd and St. Jude's Roman Catholic elementary schools, the Northeastern Academy of the Seventh Day Adventists, St. Matthew's Lutheran School and a public elementary school and junior high school keep the buses full and the pizzerias busy. For all its suburban quality, Inwood is not just that. On the east side of 10th Avenue, it is a transport hub of the MTA, with a huge train yard and an ancient brick barn for city buses that spans 10 city blocks. A kennel and a pet crematory sits next to an auto laundry. Other than that, I really did not know much about the history of my area, since Wikipedia can only offer so much. The Dyckman Farmhouse is exactly the same in how it’s described. In the 1700s, Inwood consisted of miles of farmland, and prior to that Algonquin Indians settled the area. Even to this day, its possible to find Algonquin weapons and utensils buried in the ground near the caves hidden within the park. There is even an observation station located in the park that gives a brief history of the park. Walking through the Indian trials is just as amazing as they described it to be in the WPA guide. As soon as you walk 20 ft. deep, it feels like you literally escape into another world. Many exercisers and nature observers use the hilly trails, however, once you are inside you instantly feel isolated. You can’t even hear the noisy city life bustling just moments away. I’ve used these trails several times, and witnessed the wildlife: rabbits, insects, snakes, etc. To think in New York City there was wildlife beyond pigeons!
The place I know best in the United States is New York City, so I decided to check out the WPA guide for our glorious city. I was most interested in reading about the areas that I have come to know pretty well, neighborhoods that have historically been known as "ethnic", home to many immigrants.
The first section I read is about New York's Chinatown, which I was particularly interested to read considering the class about Chinatown I am taking this semester. I was surprised that the guide described Chinatown as a relatively safe and clean area, contrary to the opinion of many other New Yorker's at the time. Over the decades after the guide was written, Chinatown did become the playground of many gangs, and today diners concerned about the cleanliness of the kitchens in which their food is prepared usually give Chinatown a miss. The neighborhood was described as concentratedly ethnic and incredibly vibrant and the author suggests various shops and types of food and restaurants to readers. Chinatown was also much smaller at the time, not stretching north of Canal street and not even east of Bowery.
Though the guide does mention the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the author does not explain that the Act made it difficult for Chinese to come to the US, and those who were able to, were primarily men. Many Chinese men had left their homes and families in China to make money in America and upon arrival faced racism and permanent alien status. After the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in the late 40's, there was a flood of immigration from China and New York's Chinatown began to grow beyond the four or five blocks it had encompassed. It is difficult to say how accurate the guide's depiction of Chinatown is.
Though I expected this section the guide to be written with a more prejudiced tone, and the author suggested Chinatown as an interesting place to visit, there was something culturally voyeuristic about the section.
I also checked out the section on the Lower East Side, which is most fascinating because of the changes this neighborhood has undergone. The Lower East Side had for over a century a highly concentrated immigrant population, with inhabitants from all over eastern and western europe. upwards of 80 thousand Jews gave the LES the world's largest Jewish population. The neighborhood was full of gangs, and people stuck to their own kind. The author points out that several famous Americans rose from the slums of the LES, such as Alfred E Smith, 4 time governor of New York.
In the decades since the guide was written, the LES has changed drastically, even though the rows of tenement buildings still exist and garments businesses still line Orchard street. Part of the LES became populated almost entirely by hispanics and latinos, and the lower part of the LES has melted into and become part of Chinatown. Today apartments in many parts of the LES demand high rents and hipsters roam the streets and the only immigrants left on the LES now are the Fukinese and other Chinese. The Jews are almost completely gone, save a few old family businesses, and even the hispanic and latino community has been replaced by young professionals and artists.
I was surprised by the coverage of these areas in the guide. These are two areas that might appeal to tourists today, but I had thought that in the 1930's no one would be interested in touring New York City's slums. The sections on Chinatown and the Lower East Side were relatively objective, and focused more on the merits of the area as opposed to the reasons one wouldn't want to visit them. The picture painted by these sections is very clear and easy to imagine, and I only wish that I could see what these neighborhoods had really been like almost 80 years ago.
Being from San Francisco, I was clearly most interested in what the California guidebook had to say. Man, was it dense! I was very impressed with the level of research that had gone into it, and the immense amount of detail. It had an extensive history of the state, the names of places, important figures and moments in time. There were several state maps at the beginning, showing the roads and the geography of the area. But I particularly enjoyed the discussions of the flora and fauna, and of the weather.
More modern guidebooks not only condense their coverage of history and terrain, they often leave out really important facts. Or so I assume. How else to explain why tourists show up every year to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge in shorts and t-shirts, freezing their butts off while those of us who live in San Francisco shake our heads in our wool coats and tights? The WPA guide very clearly states that fall is much warmer than summer, where there is icy cold fog sticking its fingers down your shirt all the time and the sun comes out maybe seven times in three months. In fact, the guide details the weather year-round for each part of the state.
There are lovely descriptions of the nature in each area too, and since I feel like that is a big part of the draw of California it was nice to see. Overall, though it read a bit more like a textbook summary than a guide, I felt it had many interesting details about the state, and was full of useful information for the traveler as well as the historian, the naturalist, and the social psychologist.
I also appreciated that the guidebooks were written in such a way that assumed a certain level of education of the reader—beyond simply being literate. Each section was full of literary and cultural references that gave the text authority and dimension. However, it did not feel inaccessible either; the writing did not condescend to the reader with overly simplistic explanations, but it did not alienate the same audience by making these allusions unnecessarily complex or opaque. Each quote or reference was contextualized and incorporated in such a way that it was not necessary to have read the book to appreciate the way that the guidebook’s writers were using the words of writers before them who had written about California with a different intent.
What a great source of information these WPAs! I guess if I had been travelling in the 1930s I definitely would have used some of these useful tips. Absolutely everything you need to know, and I love the first few pages of “General Information:” How to get there, good to know you can take the Greyhound from anywhere in the US, and definitely great to know that “Speed is 15 miles per hour at grade crossings, road intersections, and curves where the driver's view is obstructed; 15 miles per hour in passing schools where persons are entering or leaving (...)” Very detailed, I wonder if the current travel guides are as detailed, or at least with the same king of information. I love the recommendations that are given, “Border Rules : (digest)” What do they mean by digest? Oh and the info on the reptiles in California is crucial: “Rattlesnakes exist, but are not numerous being found in rocky mountains below the 3,000 ft. level; will not strike unless disturbed.” I find there is extensive information on Natural Conservation, something I'm quite sure doesn't appear as extensively in today's travel guides...maybe because we don't value it as much? I really aprpeciate the way every aspect of the state is condensed into a whole book, and how the authors cover every aspect of it: agriculture, industry, some history. And now I'm wondering: who would actually read all this? And I'm also wondering: isn't there a part of fiction in these guides? Aren't the writers, just as Steinbeck or Kromer, changing a reality in order to make it more appealing? To make the book a marketable product? I feel like everything in the book is really idealized or only certain pieces are information are conveyed while others are just left out... no? I don't know... But I definitely like the section on literature, offering short biographies of authors who either were from California or wrote about California... A little surprised though on the passage on Steinbeck, his book “Tortilla Flat” is mentioned, and summarized, so are “Of Mice and Men” and and “In Dubious Battle” but nothing, no mentioning of “The Grapes of Wrath”... why is that? Is it because it describes a reality the authors of this guide do not find adequate, appropriate? Would it make California unattractive to potential tourists? And what does that tell of the power, influence of books, novels, and these types of guides? Can this guide be thought of as a piece of propaganda?