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Tuesday, 25 October 2011

John Vachon: In the Heartland: Elevation


Dubuque, Iowa, April 1940

Now, as in the first estate the permanency of the nation was provided for; and in the second estate its progressiveness and personal freedom;
there remains for the third estate only that interest which is the ground, the necessary antecedent condition, of both the former.
These depend on a continuing and progressive civilization. But civilization is itself but a mixed good, if not far more a corrupting influence,
the hectic of disease, not the bloom of health, and a nation so distinguished more fitly to be called a varnished than a polished people,
where this civilization is not grounded in cultivation, in the harmonious development of those qualities and faculties that characterize our humanity.
We must be men in order to be citizens.

-- S.T. Coleridge, On the Constitution of Church and State, 1830

If in all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside down as in a camera obscura, this phenomenon arises as much from their historical life process
as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical life process.

-- Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: Critique of the German Ideology [ms.], 1846

National Association of Manufacturers signboard, Dubuque, Iowa, April 1940

Dubuque's largest industry in background, sash and door company. Employs 1,500 men during peak. Dubuque, Iowa, April 1940

City mission, Dubuque, Iowa, April 1940

Boys playing in an alley, Dubuque, Iowa, April 1940

Business section, Dubuque, Iowa, with houses of the rich seen on cliffs in background, April 1940

Card game in lobby of thirty-five cents a night hotel, Dubuque, Iowa, April 1940

Children who live in the slums, Dubuque, Iowa, April 1940

Elevator to residential section on the bluffs, Dubuque, Iowa, April 1940

Dubuque, Iowa, front porch on the bluffs, April 1940

Dubuque, Iowa, gas station at night, April 1940

National Association of Manufacturers signboard, Dubuque, Iowa, April 1940

Photos by John Vachon from Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress


aditya said...


A very reverberatory post. I reading 'Engels and Marx' when I opened your blog.
A very psychic happening for me.

And the pictures offering a lot of food for thought.

aditya said...

I was*

Nin Andrews said...

These pictures remind me of Youngstown, Ohio, which has a 50s plus depressed feel. I often feel I am driving back in time, esp. when so many around here have a love of antique cars and often take them out for a spin.



"We must be men in order to be citizens" (and women too) -- boy did Coleridge get it right (his early vision of Pantisocracy never disappeared, it seems) . . .


grey whiteness of fog against invisible
top of ridge, red-tailed hawk’s krrrrrr
in foreground, sound of wave in channel

painting letters along with,
is repetition of this

both say that, “both” “that,”
put in specific order

grey white fog against invisible ridge,
gull gliding to the right toward point

TC said...


Ah, Pantisocracy, yes.

You have put me in mind of what for several centuries was my favourite inadvertently-funny line break:

I breathed /in pants...

-- STC


Ah the dark Satanic Mills of yesteryear. Republic Steel, where art thou? What will intergalactic travelers make of these fossilized ruins, our great industrial dinosaurs? What ghosts flit in and out of the abandoned mills, the dismantled cathedrals, the forlorn interior caverns of Youngstown Sheet & Tube?


What can this mean? Same authors, same moment, two centuries late?

The Relation of the Bourgeois to the Capitalist State

With the development and accumulation of bourgeois property, i.e., with the development of commerce and industry, individuals grew richer and richer while the state fell ever more deeply into debt.

It is therefore obvious that as soon as the bourgeoisie has accumulated money, the state has to beg from the bourgeoisie and in the end it is actually bought up by the latter. This takes place in the period in which the bourgeoisie is still confronted by another class, and consequently the state can retain some appearance of independence in relation to both of them. Even after the state has been bought up [by special trusts, interest groups, lobbying, bribes, etc.], it still needs money and, therefore, continues to be dependent on the bourgeoisie; nevertheless, when the interests of the bourgeoisie demanded, the state can have had its disposal more funds than states which are less developed and, therefore, less burdened with debts.

-- Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: The German Ideology [ms.], 1846

TC said...

As Nin's comment about the vanished past of heartland cities and towns percolates, the memories bubble up... putting me in mind of a few prehistoric spins.

Riding with my father, who sold cardboard boxes to farm equipment firms, and my grandfather, who loved driving West, I had a few childhood trips to Dubuque. And I will never forget the steep descent down to the river from the Illinois side, and then back up again, on the other, to where the rich people lived, up there above the smoke in the clear air on the heights of the bluff on the western side.

The funicular railway pictured in the post is, unbelievably, still up and running, as I now find.
Here is a contemporary view from (appropriately enough) the bottom.

TC said...

The apparatus has quite a history, as it turns out. Viz.:

"In 1882, Dubuque was an hour and a half town -- at noon everything shut down for an hour and a half when everyone went home to dinner.

"Mr. J. K. Graves, a former mayor, former State Senator, also promoter of mines and a banker lived on top of the bluffs and worked at the bottom. Unfortunately, he had to spend half an hour driving his horse and buggy round the bluff to get to the top and another half an hour to return downtown, even though his bank was only two and a half blocks away.

"Mr. Graves liked to take half an hour for his dinner, then a half an hour nap, but this was impossible because of the long buggy ride.

"As a traveler he had seen incline railways in Europe and decided that a cable car would solve his problem. He petitioned the city for the right to build. The franchise was granted on June 5, 1882.

"John Bell, a local engineer, was hired to design and to build a one-car cable modeled after those in the Alps.

"The original cable car, which was built for Mr. Graves' private use, had a plain wood building, that housed a coal-fired steam engine boiler and winch. A wooden Swiss-style car was hauled up and down on two rails by a hemp rope.

"Mr. Graves' cable car operated for the first time on July 25, 1882. After that, he had his gardener let him down in the morning, bring him up at noon, down after dinner and nap, and up again at the end of the work day. Before long, the neighbors began meeting him at the elevator asking for rides.

"On July 19, 1884, the elevator burned when the fire that was banked in the stove for the night was blown alive. After Mr. Graves rebuilt the elevator, he remembered how his neighbors showed up when he used the cable car and he decided to open it to the public. He charged five cents a ride."

[ed. note: why are we somewhat less than surprised by this not-entirely-neighborly emergence in the enterprising Mr Graves -- "promoter of mines, banker" -- of "natural" Yankee entrepreneurial instincts?]

"The elevator burned again in 1893. Because there was a recession Mr. Graves could not afford to rebuild the cable car. The neighbors had come to depend on the elevator to get them to work, to church, to school, and to the market.

"Ten neighbors banded together and formed the Fenelon Place Elevator co. Mr. Graves gave them the franchise for the right of way for the track. This group traveled to the 1893 Colombian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois, to look for new ideas. They brought back a streetcar motor to run the elevator, the turnstile, and steel cable for the cars. They had remembered that each time the elevator house burned, the fire also burned through the hemp rope that held the car and sent it crashing down the hill destroying it and the little house at the bottom. Then they in-stalled three rails with a fourth bypass in the middle to allow for the operation of two (funicular) counterbalanced cars.

"By 1912, C. B. Trewin, who had built a house next door in 1897, became the sole stockholder. It was natural for him to buy up the stock from the original ten stockholders as they either passed away or moved away.

"Mr. Trewin added garages to the north and south sides of the operator's house in 1916. He also added a second floor apartment which the neighborhood men used for a meeting room where they could smoke and play cards without the wives interfering.

"There was another fire in 1962. That time an electrical fire between the ceiling of the operator's room and the apartment upstairs brought the realization that the price had to go up. And it did to ten cents a ride.

"In 1977, the cable cars were completely rebuilt. After 84 years the original gear drive was re-placed by a modern gear box with a DC motor."

(Can those neighborhood men have been a bit overconfident in assuming their wives' only interest lay in interfering with their smoky card games?)

Ed Baker said...


while the men were down at the bottom
smoking and playing cards

their wives were up on the top of the hill in the
fresh air
playing/napping with Mr. Graves ?

sounds like a "plan" for disaster on several layhers ?

vazambam said...

All fine but #4 my favorite: four different people frozen in position, each looking in a different direction--each on a mission?

TC said...

Vassilis, that exterior shot of the Mission corresponds with the interior shot at the top of the previous post (Bureau of the Abandoned).

The pain within, the pain without.

Between the mission and the statement, between the irrevocably, irretrievably lost and the momentarily, temporarily found, between the cold hard street exterior and the tender exposed soul interior -- that is, between the bottom and the top -- the distance is very great here right now; as are the barriers; and under the choppers and floodlights and tear gas and beanbag guns & c., the patience has been wearing thinner and thinner, the nerves growing more and more frayed, all through the long night.

Occupy Oakland Live Stream

ACravan said...

The "hectic of disease"; "more fitly to be called a varnished than a polished people." These are amazing descriptions. Will leave the Marx and Engels alone -- am not sure where they take us that is in any sense practical or likely to prove in the end desirable. People, present company excepted, pretty much stink. The Vachon images are beautifully made and wonderfully selected. Thank heaven for funicular railways -- I didn't know about this one. Wow. As they said in Animal House: "Road Trip." Curtis

TC said...

Thanks, Curtis.

As for that world-upside-down feeling...

Anyhow, after much riding up and sliding down that hill, I've now slipped one evicted photo back into the trolley.

New fifth photo from the end, the kids at the bottom of the hill, in the river-bottom slums.

aditya said...

The new pic and your follow up comments are heart wrenching to say the least.

The pain within, the pain without.

.. between the cold hard street exterior and the tender exposed soul interior ..

The night of Diwali in India.. firecrackers .. hundreds of them and hundreds of bottle rockets going up in the air
for no reason in particular.

my heart

Happy Diwali nonetheless.

Curtis Faville said...

As sad as these old photos of depression era America seem, the world they portray is a good deal less demoralizing than the slick, dehumanizing "planned" landscapes of our cities and suburbs of the post-war period. As grinding as the lives of that time may have seemed to the participants, their privation did not cause them to despair, or to be less socially interactive, or less patriotic, or whatever. Our parents growing up during those years got fucked up good by the war and the bomb and so forth, but they unionized and got their shit together in other ways.

Meanwhile, in the last four decades, we've been giving back the gains they sweated and bled for (on our behalf). The current malaise is a healthy reminder of why we have to pay attention, and remain vigilant. The "Occupy" movement is a symptom of the beginning of something, hopefully, that the rich cats with 3rd houses in Boulder, and the pretty daughters going to school in Switzerland, and the overseas bank accounts may not continue indefinitely. We have the power, if we choose to use it. All that prevents it is ignorance, and stagnation. Our complaisance is legendary. But history has a way of prodding people off their asses.

TC said...

That's beautifully said, Curtis. On the mark on all counts. Attention, yes.

Of course that requires effort.

I can feel the vision. In the photos of an earlier America I think at times I can almost, even, see it.

But what one might contribute, now, ah there's the rub.

Old, exhausted, spent, lacking the essential dread-free oomph. After the KCBS testosterone commercial comes the news.

While the Iraq vet from Occupy Oakland lies in the induced coma after the point blank teargas canister head shot (Aditya, the fireworks here these past nights have not been festive), Oakland cops mass on the bay bridge (it's reported by this same CBS affiliate), on the ready to support an SF eviction ("they're not there to drink beer and tell stories"), meanwhile five SF Sups meet in mid o'night, perhaps to head off the mayhem?

Fraught times; who knows, or wants to know, what may happen, or not happen.