Wednesday

Oct. 8, 2003

Baltimore: A Fragment from the Thirties

by Adrienne Rich

WEDNESDAY, 8 OCTOBER, 2003
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Poem: "Baltimore: a fragment from the Thirties," by Adrienne Rich, from Your Native Land, Your Life (W.W. Norton).

Baltimore: a fragment from the Thirties

Medical textbooks propped in a dusty window.
Outside, it's summer. Heat
swamping stretched awnings, battering dark-green shades.
The Depression, Monument Street,
ice-wagons trailing melt, the Hospital
with its segregated morgues . . .
I'm five years old and trying to be perfect
walking hand-in-hand with my father. A Black man halts beside us
croaks in a terrible voice, I'm hungry . . .
I'm a lucky child but I've read about beggars—
how the good give, the evil turn away.
But I want to turn away. My father gives.
We walk in silence. Why did he sound like that?
Is it evil to be frightened? I want to ask.
He has no roof in his mouth,
                           my father says at last.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of R(obert) L(awrence) Stine, born in Columbus, Ohio (1943). He wrote a series called Fear Street and then launched the more popular Goosebumps book series in 1992-scary tales aimed at eight- to eleven-year-olds. The books in the series have names like Say Cheese and Die! (1992), The Cuckoo Clock of Doom (1995), and The Horror at Camp Jellyjam (1995). As a child he spent hours alone, was always picked last for the team and often got lost in an imaginary world. He wrote stories though, typing them with one finger, as he still does. He typed out jokes and stories and handed them out at school, even though his teacher kept confiscating them. He was inspired by horror comic strips like Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror. He read them every Saturday at the barbershop, when he got his weekly hair cut. His most recent book is The Sitter (2003), about a haunted babysitting experience.

On this day in 1956, the first fully enclosed, climate-controlled shopping mall in the United States opened in Edina, Minnesota. It was called Southdale, and cost $20 million to build. There were two levels, filled with 72 stores and anchored on both ends by department stores—Dayton's and Donaldson's. In the center was the Garden Court, decorated with brightly colored song birds, art displays, decorative lighting, tropical plants, fountains, trees and flowers. The goal was to create an atmosphere of leisure and inspire people to mingle, like in a European marketplace. The mall offered a helicopter service to customers—a ten-minute ride between Southdale and the airport, downtown St. Paul, or the Dayton's in downtown Minneapolis.

On this day in 1871, the 335,000 residents of Chicago experienced yet another warm, sunny day of their three month long drought. The conditions were getting dangerous because the whole city was built of wood. A few fires had broken out, including one the night before, which the whole fire department was called out for. But it was nothing like the Great Chicago Fire, which began the evening of October 8, at 8:45 PM. The fire broke out at the barn of two Irish immigrants, Catherine and Patrick O'Leary, on the West Side. The story is that Mrs. O'Leary's cow kicked over a kerosene lamp while she was being milked. A massive conflagration spread. The fire traveled quickly on the West Side, but the people on the other side of the Chicago River felt safe in their beds. By midnight, though, it had jumped the river and was traveling northeast and upriver. It traveled up to 30 mph at times, and generated "fire devils," whirling masses of fire and superheated air that traveled even faster than the fire itself. The fire devils caused high winds that sent burning planks and other fiery items soaring for hundreds of yards through the air. The intense heat caused spontaneous combustion in places not yet reached by the fire. People were running out of their houses and running north. Some people took as many belongings as they could. They ran holding cats, dogs and goats. One eyewitness saw a lady running with a pot of soup that was spilling all over her dress. Another woman was carrying her framed wedding veil and wreath. By the next morning, the heart of the business district was in flames. By October 10, more than three square miles in the heart of the city were completely destroyed. The property damages were $200 million. Almost 100,000 people were homeless, and nearly 300 were dead. It was more than 24 hours later, and four and a half miles from where it started, that the fire finally ran out of fuel and rain came.

But Chicago was determined to rebuild itself. One editorialist wrote, "All our energies are aroused, all our faculties at work, all our brains alive, and when a community is thus awoke to a determined and united purpose—only the angels can transcend their power." After eighteen months had passed, more than 1,000 major buildings, valued at more than $50 million, had been erected. Two years after the fire, the value of the bare ground of the new Chicago was worth more than it had been in 1871 with all its buildings. Between 1870 and 1880, the population rose from 300,000 to 500,000. Then it more than doubled by the turn of the century.

On the same day as the Great Chicago Fire, the worst natural fire in U.S. history occurred. A fire with a lot less press coverage ravaged the city of Peshtigo, Wisconsin. It was a lumber town, surrounded by pines, and it provided much of the wood used to build and rebuild Chicago. The fire ruined more than one million acres of forest there, and killed about 1,500 people. A mass grave of 350 unidentified bodies still remains.

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