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State of New York State History

Saving Cities: Learning from Melanie Griffith

One of my favorite movie scenes is from Working Girl when Melanie Griffith explains while riding up the elevator with Trask and Indiana, how she came up with the idea for the corporate merger. It wasn’t as if she had been thinking about anything even remotely related to it. Her insight derived from a chance juxtaposition perceived by a mind willing to learn and open to new possibilities.

She was reading a newspaper, thumbing through the pages when she chanced upon the notice about a radio DJ looking for a new home followed on the next page with a society notice about the wedding of the daughter of a media mogul. Voila, a eureka moment. That’s how thinking works. By contrast Sigourney Weaver was at a loss for words when posed the question on how she had had the idea which she had stolen. Thinking works in unexpected ways but two keys are a willingness to learn something new and the opportunity to do so through the presentation of new information and/or experiences (like a field trip).

Recently, at the risk of seeming immodest, I had such a eureka moment. Following the writing of the my last post on ruin porn, I read an article in the New York Times Magazine. Strange as it may sound it was about the eternal life of a type of hydozoans (a cross between a jellyfish and a coral) that seems not to die but to live cyclically, first aging, then reversing course, and then aging again ad infinitum. Naturally it is called the Benjamin Button jellyfish even though the movie character only seems to regress once. (Bet you never thought Brad Pitt and Melanie Griffith would appear in a New York History column!)

The article began with one of the oldest stories of the human search for immortality, the Gilgamesh Epic. In that story the immortal Utnapistim who survived the flood like Noah, tells the king of Uruk (in modern Iraq) that the secret to eternal life is from a coral found on the sea floor. However, that coincidence with the hydrozoan of the article, is not the point of this post. The individual Gilgamesh fails in his efforts to attain immortality and returns home to Uruk to resume his kingship. Then he has his eureka moment. Immortality is not for the individual but for the city. It is the walls of the city which will endure forever, it is the city which will last for eternity, not any one person in it, not even the king such as himself.

The article doesn’t mention this message of the Gilgamesh Epic but since I was thinking about ruin porn and am familiar with the epic, I thought right away of Detroit, the city which seems to be at death’s door. And I thought of the cities I have seen in New York which have seen better days and which wonder if or how they will continue to exist except as a shell because they are too big to disappear but not too big not to dwindle into insignificance. Then lo and behold, the next day after I read the article about the repeating lifecycle of the city of Detroit.

Amidst the endless abandoned buildings where Nature grows luxuriantly, pioneers now journey forth seeking the urban lifestyle and, specifically, rental apartments. These often young and generally childless people are breathing new life into the deteriorating core of the once mighty metropolis. And where there is housing there will be restaurants and retail outlets to support the living. These tiny hubs of revival do not mean Detroit is on the way to once again becoming the fourth largest city in the nation. But it does mean hope and the possibility of bringing areas back to life by starting small and taking it one step at a time. This year as we ignore the sesquicentennial of the Homestead Act under Lincoln that brought families to the Midwest and West, perhaps we are witnessing another homesteading of a community seeking to renew itself.

Does this apply to New York? By yet another coincidence (do they come in threes?), there was another article about a revival in Schenectady. It seems that economists and technologists are learning the value of keeping manufacturing and research together. They are also learning of the benefits for an innovative society to have multiple such combinations in proximity to each other as the car manufacturers of Detroit once had. Quaint as it may seem there is a synergy, a 2+2=5, win-win when people are able to congregate, exchange experiences and ideas, learn from each other, and share the insights rather than having companies simply ship off to China one facet after another of the production process.

G.E. in Schenectady now is providing a test case for this hypothesis that the juxtaposition of research and manufacturing can lead to eureka moments just as it did for Melanie Griffith when she linked those two pages of the newspaper together to arrive at something greater than the sum of the parts. While not every city will have a G.E. or university or hospital which can serve as the catalyst for growth, it is possible to incubate such growth on a small scale as well or with new products. Yogurt anybody?

The same applies to history sites. Right now a notice has been sent out about the Path through History/NYS Cultural Heritage Weekends in June (not May this time) in 2013. In the past I have criticized the Path project for not being about paths but about standalone destinations devoid of collaboration. I would like to take this opportunity to reiterate the need for working together, for sharing, for cooperating.

I write this knowing that most likely communities will continue to go their own way and not collaborate. Schenectady will not work with Amsterdam or Canajoharie or the other communities of the Mohawk Valley to create a Mohawk Valley experience nor will other cities and communities which will not be mentioned here in the Hudson Valley, Champlain Valley, Finger Lakes, etc. do so either. Each will do its own thing and not package an experience with their neighbors.

Even within a given community, if there are multiple historic sites, each will work independently of the other because that’s the way they always do it. No paths will be created from below and there is no mechanism, venue, or authority to create them from above or forum to even discuss them. Actually the Path through History could provide such leadership but it is not funded, staffed, or organized to be that forum. What a shame. Melanie changed to escape her dead-end rut to grow as a person, are we ready to do the same to grow as a state?

Peter Feinman founder and president of the Institute of History, Archaeology, and Education, a non-profit organization which provides enrichment programs for schools, professional development program for teachers, public programs including leading Historyhostels and Teacherhostels to the historic sites in the state, promotes county history conferences, the development of Paths through History, and a Common Core Curriculum that includes local and state history.

4 thoughts on “Saving Cities: Learning from Melanie Griffith

  1. In response to Peter Feinman’s commentary on Detroit, I would like to contribute these thoughts and suggestions. While he describes the “often young and generally childless people [who] are breathing new life into the deteriorating core of the once mighty metropolis,” and who may encourage “restaurants and retail outlets,” to set up shop, I’m concerned that this style of revitalization suggests gentrification that replaces the remaining Mom&Pop stores and remaining affordable housing. Instead I wish to draw attention to another, more sustainable and embracing form of revitalization underway in Detroit, providing a lesson for other cities: the Food Movement. Feinman refers to the lots “where Nature grows luxuriantly.” Detroit city government has worked hard to demolish its abandoned, derelict buildings, resulting in many empty lots. However, many of these lots are NOT empty, and a very diverse assortment of people, all ages and ethnic groups, economic classes and organizations, have rented for free or brought these lots at very low prices and converted them into urban gardens, some being mini-farms. The produce from these gardens supplies fresh, green vegetables for residents of the “food deserts” of the inner city; fresh, local food for restaurants and the city’s “120-year old Eastern Market,” now also being revitalized. This is a far more inclusive process for sustainability and revitalization and could be readily copied by other forlorn cities, such as Newburgh, NY. I urge you to read Mark Bittman’s OPINIONATOR essay in the May 17, 2011, New York Times. Also, NPR has featured Detroit’s urban gardens: “The Gift of Detroit: Tilling Urban Terrain,” Detroit’s urban gardening movement is also representative of the Black Farmers Revitalization Movement in both urban and rural areas; see: Thank you.

  2. So Detroit is becoming a farming community again? This is great, and worthy of a Mayan prophecy!

  3. A Farming Community? Or a Forest? 12-21-12 NPR featured “Urban Tree Farm Grows in Detroit;” and while some doubts exist whether this is simply land speculation or a credible endeavor, the lots are being planted with “small hardwood trees — oaks and sugar maples.” Maybe this is the start of a future maple syrup industry. Seriously, folks, Detroit IS Green-ing Up. Also, another NPR link for my first email: “Farms Take Root in Detroit’s Foreclosures,” June 2008,

  4. I love it! Now if only my small country town would cease its incessant deforestation in the name of some “progresive” project or another–including a “carbon footprint reducing” solar array– we’d really be making progress. Even in an enlightened community, there’s resistence to the common sense of locating projects in already open areas such as a closed and capped former landfill. It’s always chop chop chop. sorry, but chop chop chop. “It’s for your own good.” chop chop chop.

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