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Braving Home: Dispatches from the Underwater Town, the Lava-Side Inn, and Other Extreme Locales
In Braving Home, first-time author Jake Halpern examines the nature of community and its relationship to landscape, and the lengths—the extremes of inconvenience and even hardship—to which people will go to maintain that relationship. The book started from Halpern’s undefinable attraction to the “iron-willed, unfearing, and utterly immovable” characters who stay in difficult places. It developed into a wide-ranging examination of the curious nature of the bond individuals feel with their place and, at times, the bond entire communities feel with their place. This once-commonplace response to the world—connection and commitment—has become increasingly rare.
Halpern selected five “extreme locales” to visit—places where individuals have had to make calculated and emotion-filled cost-benefit analyses of significant physical and social hardship. There is the surreal “indoor town” of Whittier, Alaska, whose single building is a high-rise that contains housing, post office, laundry, and shopping center, in a way that sounds distressingly like a jail. There is a bed-and-breakfast in a remnant of a Hawaii suburb where most residents were evicted by a volcanic eruption; to reach the inn, Halpern has to walk miles across the newly hardened volcanic crust, picking his way around flows of fresh lava. (“For the most part,” he writes, the volcanic crust is stable, “but there is always the possibility of taking a bad step and falling downward into an active lava tube.”)
Halpern is most compelling when he writes of the three locales whose last, elderly residents have lived in them for decades. The “underwater town” of Princeville, North Carolina—according to some, the oldest incorporated black town in the United States—was vacated after being flooded by Hurricane Floyd in 1999. When Halpern visited, the town council was deciding whether to repair Princeville’s leaky earthen dike or accept a federal buyout. But in the meantime, 72-year-old Thad Knight had returned to the devastated community and remained, despite a heart attack, lack of phone and electricity, and a five-gallon plastic bucket for a toilet. “Thad claimed to enjoy the solitude,” writes Halpern. “If he got bored, or his bones grew stiff, he would stand up and trudge across his small half-acre of land. He said he knew the contours of every dip, every gentle slope—he could see them even with his eyes shut—and his intimacy with the terrain gave him comfort.”
Millie Decker, age 81, is Halpern’s host when he visits fire-prone Malibu, near Hollywood, the place he calls the Canyon of the Firefighting Hillbillies. Wildfire here is a regular meteorological phenomenon, as assured if not as predictable as rain or wind, and Decker grew up fighting fires as a girl with wetted gunnysacks. She has lived there since before Hollywood arrived, and is relatively unconcerned by the nearly annual wildfires that rush toward her ranch, braiding around it like, well, lava. (Hers is a homeland defense made all the more interesting by the fact that her late husband’s many arsenals of dynamite are stored in a cave on her property.)
Dealing with the fires, rather than panicking and running—“firewising” the area immediately around their home, to encourage the fires to pass through—“was a demanding reality to which they had adapted,” Halpern writes of the Deckers. “For them, wildfires were a natural part of life, something to be expected, something to be lived with, and in this way the Deckers would always be living in this canyon.”
Then there is Grand Isle, Louisiana, a barrier island imminently imperiled during half the year by hurricanes. The island is also sinking, due to the fact that the channelized Mississippi River no longer deposits the soil-building sediment necessary to keep Grand Isle above sea level. For this reader, Grand Isle is the most poignant chapter of the book, in that an entire culture is at risk not so much from the occasional hurricane, but from the more insidious encroachment of the ocean, with the residents' beloved soil vanishing literally beneath their feet. Having survived dozens of massive storms over the centuries, the Louisiana coast cannot survive being cut off from the nurturing flow of the Mississippi, unless urgent—and expensive—remedial measures are undertaken immediately.
Here, as with the other places he visits, Halpern hooks up with one of the most durable of the locals, Ambrose Besson, and hangs out with him for days, observing the way in which he moves through his community, and listening. In this chapter, there’s a stronger sense of pathos. Catastrophes loom in all the other chapters, but they are one-shot deals, each its own individual chance, whereas Grand Isle’s fate seems all the more cruel for the little daily deaths it must face as it sinks—if remediation does not take place. Often, Halpern’s role in this chapter is as much that of oral historian as journalist, and the chapter is strong because of Halpern’s recognition of that need. It reads as bittersweet irony indeed to learn that the “storm riders” on Grand Isle—old-timers who don’t leave the island, even when a big hurricane is coming, one that threatens severe flooding—don’t really fear those one-time events at all.
“It’s no big deal,” said Ambrose. “When a hurricane comes through, the road just kind of goes under. Sometimes the water connection goes, almost always the power goes, and then it’s back to kerosene lanterns. So we light our lanterns, strap stuff down, sit around, maybe cook a meal.” Instead, the real worry—the albatross that comes up in every conversation—is the steady sinking, and the associated feeling of abandonment by the rest of the country. That feeling is made more frustrating by the knowledge that the rest of the country needs the barrier island of Grand Isle to absorb storms' forces before they wreck the highly-developed coastlines.
It’s been lamented long and loud that our country is becoming homogenized—super-sized and yet at the same time blanded-down. (“We prefer to be stunned rather than overwhelmed,” the poet Jim Harrison wrote recently.) Some say that the American landscape—so altered, marginalized, neutered, and exploited—is no longer relevant in forming or even affecting the American character. Halpern himself writes sparingly but effectively of his own rootlessness, not so much as a response to any particular place, but simply as a cultural side effect of this country.
If it’s true, Halpern’s book shows what we’ve lost. “Despite the overwhelming drawbacks,” he writes, “home still held some transcendent value for these people, and I couldn’t help but feel moved by their will to hold fast … Home was not just a place but a way of life, a work in progress, something you built and rebuilt over the course of a lifetime, until at last, like the old-timers who went by geographic names—Francis of Middlebury or Jeremiah of Ipswich—home was simply who you were."
City: Urbanism and Its End
In 1966, Richard C. Lee, then mayor of New Haven, wrote a letter to Yale art historian Vincent Scully. Lee, who ran New Haven from 1954 to 1970, was the most charismatic and ambitious mayor in the city’s history—an aggressive exploiter of federal funds, a visionary bent on turning New Haven into a model city, and an energetic proponent of asphalt, grand building projects, and other hallmarks of the '60s version of urban renewal. But Scully had criticized the program, saying Lee overlooked the need for preservation of urban architecture and protection of the urban fabric.
“You know I have given my life to my city, and, indeed, most of my health,” Lee replied in the letter, recently unearthed by Douglas Rae and published in his new book, City: Urbanism and Its End. “New Haven was a mess when I became mayor on January 1, 1954—a rotten, stinking, decaying mess … Vince, for the life of me—and I say this in the kindest way I can—I cannot understand your constant posturing as a critic of New Haven, as a critic of redevelopment, and as a critic of Dick Lee (and I say this very sorrowfully).”
But by the time Lee left office, he was discouraged that his efforts at social engineering had not turned the city around. “If New Haven is a ‘model city,’” he often said, “God help America’s cities.”
City is a history of New Haven in the twentieth century, chronicling its rise as an industrial and manufacturing center and then its steady decline in the second half of the century, when market forces and the automobile—which led both to car-centered roadbuilding projects and to a flight to the suburbs—sucked out its vitality. It is a tale common to cities across America. Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Buffalo, Detroit, St. Louis, and others were all victimized by the rush to the suburbs and by federal programs such as urban renewal, which were supposed to help urban neighborhoods rather than destroy them. People who care about the survival of our cities will be drawn to the book.
Rae, 64, is a Yale professor of management and political science, but he does not write solely as an academic. He came to New Haven in 1967, and as a longtime resident of New Haven’s East Rock neighborhood, he treasures its small grocery stores and coffee shops—the kind of urban amenities Lee sometimes ignored. Rae has also experienced city government firsthand. From 1990 to 1991 he worked as chief administrative officer for New Haven mayor John Daniels, when the city was in horrendous financial condition. Struggling to cut the budget, Rae saw up close the limitations of governance and the decline of urbanism—and found his job stressful, to say the least, as he recounts in the book’s preface: “The work was better than any diet for my corpulent midsection. In the first six months of the job I lost 40 pounds, yet the city achieved only a modest reduction in spending.”
To put a human face on his history, Rae uses the story of 88-year-old Joseph Perfetto, who ran a typewriter and stationery store on Crown Street for seven decades but is going out of business when Rae visits. “Perfetto must close his shop not because of his advanced age, not because of his store’s decrepitude, and not because his building has lost some of its roof,” Rae writes. “Perfetto has to close his doors because the city in which his business was designed to operate is gone -- having disappeared little by little in fits and starts.”
Rae’s in-depth evaluation of Mayor Lee is one of the most interesting parts of his book, partly because Lee frequently escapes blame for the failures of urban renewal in the city. Rae has bravely analyzed the shortcomings of the mayor and his squadron of “elite bureaucrats,” and reached the painful conclusion that “in the goals of governance, of revitalizing the city, he was in the main unsuccessful.”
Rae is judicious and fair, noting along the way that “the underlying problems faced by Lee’s New Haven were so deeply rooted in its history, so powerful and complex, that no mayor and no mayoral administration lasting a mere 16 years could have overcome them.” But he is forthright about Lee’s attempt to circumvent the city’s democratic process by importing 50 technocrats who thought New Haveners would be better off if their neighborhoods were leveled and they were relocated to massive housing developments. Rae shows how the thousands of residents and small shopkeepers in the city’s vibrant Oak Street district were scattered and replaced by a series of parking lots and a short highway to nowhere—the Richard C. Lee Connector—that was designed to funnel traffic in and out of downtown, but succeeded mostly in splitting the city and making much of it unfriendly to pedestrians. Today, some residents call it the Disconnector.
While working on this book, Rae repeatedly interviewed Lee, who was in failing health but still of sound mind. (He died last February.) Lee contributed many colorful anecdotes about his rise to power. For instance, there was the night when, as a young alderman, Lee made sure the large crowd gathered outside his house all got “snow tickets”—good for a free shovel and some decent wages from shoveling snow for the public works department. The image of the genial young populist contrasts sharply with the bureaucrat Lee would become, patron of many projects that were hostile to the person in the street.
Yale became an increasingly important player in the city as its manufacturing economy collapsed, and Rae details the inevitable friction that accompanied the university’s expansion—in particular the acerbic relationship between Mayor Bartholomew Guida and Yale president Kingman Brewster in the early 1970s. Fighting to preserve the city’s tax base, Guida kept the university from building two new residential colleges at the corner of Church and Grove streets. Rae quotes Arthur T. Barbieri, the powerful Democratic chair of the Town Committee: “[Yale’s leaders] are going to have to realize that we are not peasants and they are not the manor on the hill. They are going to come down off their high horse and change their relationship with us.”
But today Rae is optimistic about New Haven’s relationship with Yale, and about New Haven’s future. He sees a solid partnership between Yale president Richard C. Levin (a longtime New Havener) and Mayor John DeStefano Jr. He also believes the city’s mayors now realize they must stop looking backward to New Haven’s past as a center of manufacturing and large department stores, and instead build upon its lure as a cultural arts center and the home of Yale. Rae concludes his book by alluding to Yale as the city’s only important large export industry. That new tale, he says in the final sentence, is the subject of his next book.
How Koreans Talk: A Collection of Expressions
This collection of more than four hundred proverbs, idioms, and other common expressions shows the truth in the old English saying that “the proverbs of a nation are the great book out of which it is easy to read its character.”
The expressions in How Koreans Talk are arranged into 16 categories, centering on such topics as anatomical terms, grit and hardship, money, and family relationships. Each of the sayings is given in Korean characters and English transliteration, then translated and, in most cases, accompanied by a capsule essay explaining its origin, setting it in cultural and historic context, and giving variants. The authors—Sang-Hun Choe was a member of an Associated Press team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2000, and Christopher Torchia is chief of the AP’s Seoul bureau—also have provided sidebars throughout the text on such diverse subjects as the kisaeng (the Korean counterpart of the Japanese geisha), Konglish (slang that combines Korean and English), and Korea’s “envelope” culture (the envelopes being filled with cash, sometimes just tips or bonuses but in other instances outright bribes).
Food—rice, especially—looms large in Korean talk. “The other man’s rice cake always looks bigger” is similar to the English “The grass always looks greener on the other side of the fence,” and “Packed like bean sprouts” translates as “Packed like sardines.” The meanings of other expressions are less obvious. Someone wishing to offer praise for a delicious meal might say, “You wouldn’t notice even if your friend at the same table dies.”
Korea’s geography and history also are reflected in common folk expressions. A long, difficult journey is like going over “ninety-nine hills.” Other sayings are vivid, earthy, or humorous. There’s the charming “I laughed so hard that I thought my belly button would pop out.” Of a man who goes to a concert but forgets his tickets at home, one might say, “He left his testicles behind when he went to his wedding.” An expression of real contempt is “You are worse than the dirt between my toes.”
Some common sayings are quite new. “My film stopped rolling at some point last night,” meaning “I drank so much last night that I don’t remember what I said or did,” is a way of dodging responsibility for whatever one might have done under the influence—insulting the boss, say, or throwing up in a colleague’s lap. To refer to a person as a “a fluorescent light” is to imply that he or she is slow to understand, like a bulb that flickers a few times before turning on fully. “Military adviser” (originally referring to Americans in the post-World War II period) is no compliment; it means “oaf” or, in an extended sense, anyone whose incompetence undermines teamwork. “A Soviet submachine gun” is a non-stop talker, one who spews out words like bullets—a reference to the guns North Korean soldiers carried during the Korean War. A phrase that is widely used to ridicule authoritarian leaders and their underlings, “Your highness must feel relieved now,” comes from a remark that a cabinet minister reportedly made when President Syngman Rhee interrupted a cabinet meeting with a loud fart.
In sum, How Koreans Talk makes entertaining and informative browsing, providing many new insights through the lens of language into the mindset of a culture that we would do well to understand better than we do.
Charles Seife '95MS
In this accessible, elegant book, a science journalist surveys the “galaxy hunters, microwave eavesdroppers, gravity theorists, and atom smashers” seeking cosmological truths about Mother Corn and Genesis, fire and ice.
Sam Rubin '95
From 1865, when Yale beat Wesleyan 39-13, to the present, baseball has been dear to New Haven. The author has assembled a story in pictures of the Elm City evolution of the sport, much of which took place on Yale Field.
Traci Maynigo '03
“Every year of college will find you changing, and always for the better,” writes the author, a new Yale graduate. In this guide, she offers down-to-earth advice for young women.
Laura Morelli '98PhD
While doing research for her PhD, the author scoured Italy for artisans who use age-old techniques. Her book tells tourists how to find the good stuff.
Nina Revoyr '91
When her grandfather dies unexpectedly, Jackie Ishida, the protagonist of this second novel, inherits a challenge. She must unearth long-hidden family secrets about race, love, World War II, and the unsolved murders that took place during the Watts riots of 1965.
Warren Lehrer '80MFA and Judith Sloan
These documentary artists trekked the streets of Queens—one of the most ethnically diverse places in the U.S.—to paint an intriguing portrait of 79 immigrants who make up the new New York.
More Books by Yale Authors
Joseph H. Astrachan 1983, 1989PhD and Kristi S. McMillan
Edward L. Ayers 1980PhD
W. Y. Boyd 1950
Susan Choi 1990
Joshua Clark 1998, Editor
Andrea Darif 1973, 1974MFA
Kenneth Davidson 1967LLM
David Brion Davis, Sterling Professor of History Emeritus
Brent Hayes Edwards 1990
James N. Gardner 1968, 1974JD
Rufus Goodwin 1957
David Greenberg 1990
Jay Grossman 1985
Sue Halpern 1977
Bernice L. Hausman 1985
Dolores Hayden, Professor of Architecture and American Studies
Julie Hilden 1992JD
Suji Kwock Kim 1989
John B. Letterman 1989, Editor
Hilary Lifton 1991
Katherine K. Loucks 1996 and Robert H. Miller 1993
Krista Madsen 1995
Michael McGerr 1976, 1984PhD
Richard M. Merelman 1965PhD
Leslie Page Moch 1967MAT
Jeffrey K. Olick 1993PhD, Editor
Julia K. O'Neill 1982 and Hugo Barreca
Mark Oppenheimer 1996
K. K. Ottessen 2000MBA
Carlo Rotella 1994PhD
Roger C. Schonfeld 1999
Walter Sinnott-Armstrong 1982PhD and William Lane Craig
Jane Stern 1971MFA
Bryant F. Tolles Jr. 1961, 1962MAT
Erica Simone Turnipseed 1993
Adir Waldman 1997, 2002JD
Karl Zinsmeister 1982
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