Siblog 50: Some amateur anthropologist’s field notes

Goucher College: Class of 1979

Greg and Dana’s cat Wolfie comes begging for some strokes. I am at the Reston residence, at the table with Cornelia. Both of us are taking stock after our travels to Baltimore and Philadelphia. I was able to take a limited number of field notes during that trip, which was a whirlwind of American beauty like the Eastern State Penitentiary, the Barnes Foundation Museum (Philly) and Fells Point (Balty). As an amateur anthropologist I know that buildings and other cultural expressions do reflect a people’s culture. However, the people themselves speak most. During this trip, Cornelia introduces me to many of her friendships, some of which go back decades: Jennifer, Mark, Richard, Natalie, Megan, Tim (Baltimore tribe) and Jennifer, Martin and Eleanor (Philladelphia tribe). Also, I am present at an alumni/ae meeting of the Goucher College tribe. Cornelia is of the class of 1979 and it is a 45-year reunion. This allows me to study academic social life in more detail. But let me start in Fells Point, Baltimore.

Colored houses near Fells Point

Our first stay is at Jennifer’s appartment in Baltimore, which offers a beautiful view of Baltimore harbor at Fells Point. She and her friend Mark take us on a tour in the area. This is an old part of Baltimore, where stevedores and sailors came to enjoy the jollies of Baltimore. Small houses and cute pubs reflect that past. Taken over by the tourist industry, highly gentrified, chique. Our Dutch and American lives meet, and the mutual history that Cornelia shares with these friends passes by in our chats. But we also talk politics and cultural differences. Although in the Netherlands we also currently have a right-winged majority, the situation in the United States is much more polarized. There are only two parties and they rule in turns. Sometimes the President is a Republican, sometimes a Democrat. And the House of Representatives (Tweede Kamer in The Netherlands) and the Senate (Eerste Kamer in The Netherlands) also vary with regard to which party has the majority. Almost never does one party have the presidency and both houses. It is as if the Americans do strive for balance in their voting. However, the political situation is tense with two elderly candidates: a Republican who is on trial for efforts to manipulate the previous elections, and a reasonable Democrat who did pretty well for the American people. If the dictator-to-be wins or loses does not really seem to matter. In my conversations with Cornelia’s East Coast friends there is talk of huge polarization and even a threat of civil war and a division of the country in two or three parts. In Philly I buy a print of the US Constitution, because I want to know more about the foundations of this country. Meanwhile, Natalie takes us to Ellicott City, a small town hit by two floods in two years. There is a definitely some consciousness about the climate on Earth here, but urgency still seems low. People still drive in their big cars, consume a lot and produce huge amounts of garbage. Little cycling or walking, too. Both are considered dangerous, although I see a lot of car drivers showing true courtesy to pedestrians, too.

Eastern State Penitentiary, first and second floor

The Philadelphia Tribe has a multicultural orientation. In the Gay District we enjoy a nice lunch with Eleanor, a former poetry teacher of Cornelia at Goucher College. Although the art collection of the Barnes Foundation in Philly is excellent and makes us feel drunk with visual impressions, for me a main highlight is the old Eastern State Penitentiary. It is a crumbling ruin, embodying new ideas about confinement in the first prison of the United States. The idea of the prison was that prisoners should be on their own, in silence, with a lot of outside light and fresh air, to make them think of the wrong they did. This is reflected in the building, which was opened in 1829 and closed in 1971. Five cell blocks form a star with a central hall in the middle. It is a depressing building, for us but definitely for its previous inmates. Solitary confinement did in the end prove devastating for the prisoners and did probably not contribute to remorse and moral progress. Rather, it would drive the prisoners crazy and even more eager to escape. I learn there that the USA has the highest number of incarcerated people in the world. I do take a lot of pictures here, to show the beauty of decay and imperfection, which has become a central theme in my photographic work. While in Philly, we stay at Jennifer and Martin’s house in Media, a suburb way outside of Philly. It is a calm, green and still vibrant environment. It is a transition town, a really interesting concept with a lot of local initiatives regarding human-sized alternatives for a sustainable and social community. We especially love the trolley, see below.

Trolley from Media to Philadelphia, 69th street

I will now revert to Dutch again.

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