Monday, April 20, 2015

Easter in New Orleans

Trinity Episcopal Church
Garden District of New Orleans
Millions of revelers flow through New Orleans for Mardi Gras at Lent’s beginning but far fewer join festivities when the penitential season ends at Easter.  Yet at the Pasqual celebration, weather is better, gardens fuller and a different kind of hat rules – the Easter bonnet.  It was the perfect time to revisit New Orleans after a 35 year absence.

Preparations for the trip first centered around restaurant reservations.  Two months in advance were not enough to secure a table for some NOLA traditional establishments.  Arnaud’s website warned they were booked until May.  Commodore’s Palace wouldn’t allow online reservations and a call confirmed they were completely full for brunch on Easter Sunday.  Amelie’s, a small venue in the French Quarter, apologized for its capacity crowd and could only offer to put us on a waiting list.  Fortunately, finding a good restaurant in the Crescent City is easy and I could relax a bit with a confirmed brunch reservation at Coquette’s in the Garden District.  It seemed prudent to firm up eating arrangements for other nights of our trip and those came more easily – Bayona on Saturday night and August, a Josh Besh restaurant, on Monday evening.

For accommodations, we used Airbnb for the first time.  Our go to favorite home/apartment rental company had been VRBO – Vacation Rental by Owner.  But younger friends promoted Airbnb as it advertised not only full apartments and houses but also single rooms or even a shared room.  Prices can be as low as $30 a night in the Seventh Ward or $155 a night for a two bedroom spot in the French Quarters or $355 for a four bedroom house in the suburbs. 

We booked half of a shotgun house on Magazine Street in the Garden District, complete with front porch for easy street scene viewing.  Donuts and coffee were one block to the east and a neighborhood bar one block west.   Our landlord lived next door and had coffee, water and cold beer awaiting our arrival.   He knew the local scene and could suggest many music venues and local food choices. 

Diners at Commodore's Palace
With Catholic and Episcopal churches within walking distance, we enjoyed our stroll on Easter morning.  Men in white and cream colored linen suits and women with large brimmed hats carried on an old Southern tradition.  Boys in jackets and girls in pastel dresses skipped into church.  A cross covered in wire greeted families who brought flowers from their gardens to fill its spaces – a tradition I remember from my childhood.  It felt a step back in time.

Strawberry shortcake with mint ice
cream at Coquette's in Garden District
Easter Brunches are serious business with most restaurants overflowing.    At Coquettes, a three course, fixed priced menu offered unusual Easter choices such as lamb stew with potato salad or crawfish salad but included a traditional strawberry short cake.  Well dressed families filled the two stories throughout the day.  A stroll through the Garden District took us past Commodore’s Palace, a New Orleans classic with its odd blue and white striped exterior.   We watched guests arriving in sleek black cars, exiting in high heels and flowered patterned attire.  Inside a jazz trio played. 

Lafayette Cemetery #1
Across the street,  Lafayette Cemetery#1 was open and beckoned to those passing by.  New Orleans cemeteries are unique with family crypts holding generations of the departed.  Names of the departed dated back into the early 1800s.  At one monument, a feral cat relaxed and two strands of black and white beads were draped over an urn.  As a walking tour passed by we overheard the guide explain the need to live in a “good cemetery” neighborhood – a concept new to us.

If Mardi Gras parades seem excessive, an alternative is the Easter parade.  Three were available in the French Quarter with several neighborhood ones nearby.  Bourbon Street Club owner, Chris Owens, was the Grand Duchess of her 32nd annual “patriotic” Easter Parade.  Stuffed bunnies are tossed as well as the ever present beads.  Another favorite family activity appeared to be picnics in the beautiful Audubon Park and then just cruising St. Charles Avenue with windows open. 


New Orleans for the traveler has the feel of a foreign country as well as living in a time capsule.  Much of the city has completely recovered from Hurricane Katrina and it has almost recouped its population loss from the storm.  Despite recent crime surges due in part to a 30% vacancy rate in the police department, the city feels safe, friendly, and walkable.  It certainly was on a beautiful Easter Sunday.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

9/11 Memorial and Museum Gets It Right




New One World Trade Center and plaza


Original slurry wall holding back Hudson River

No memorial has ever tried to accommodate so many opinions and needs as the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. Its slow progress and occasional retreats were well chronicled in the news. Survivors, victims’ families, rescue workers, neighbors, local, state and federal government - all had input, many with strong opinions.  Designs came and went.  Size and depth were debated.  Since memorials and museums have inherently different goals, the decision to separate them allows the emotional and historical objectives to be met.  Planners used guidelines developed for the Oklahoma City Memorial where those lost in the 1995 bombing are remembered with empty named chairs and the adjacent museum records the events and significance in history.


Debate in New York included which victim names should be engraved – only those lost from the Twin Towers or all from 9/11 or add those who died in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.  Gratefully, all are listed and grouped with those who died together. What to display in the museum generated the strongest feelings.  Many of the artifacts were too personal such as recordings of last conversations.  Yet, emotional intensity was desired and even factored in.  In the museum, early exit doors are available for those overcome by memories.
Footprint Pool at 9/11 Memorial

Names of Victims carved on parapet surrounding pool
Thirteen years after the event, the 9/11 Memorial and Museum finally opened on May 15, 2014.  It is already the number six item of top 20 things to do in New York City on Trip Advisor.  A million visitors have come to pay homage.  We approached the scene by foot, passing through the white oaks and sweet gum tree filled plaza until reaching two enormous pools outlining the footprints of the lost towers. The depth of the pools gave a true sense of the size of the lost Towers.  Leaning over the four foot parapet walls, I watched water fall 30 feet (three stories) into a square shaped fountain.  Titled “Reflecting Absence”, the black granite walls encouraged somber thoughts for this appropriately named architectural piece.  Names of all who died were carved on the parapets, some with flowers laid across or a single rose inserted.  I felt sad.

Original Steel Beams in Museum Lobby
Elevator Motor from Twin Tower


Nearby is the 9/11 museum.  Everything about its open areas is large.  The lobby’s long escalator descends past two giant, 70 foot steel beams, with forked tops pointing skyward. Further down, in Foundation Hall, the last standing 36 foot tall column anchors this enormous Hall that is supported by the original slurry wall holding back the Hudson River.  A circular elevator motor stretches 6 feet in diameter and a river water valve reaches 5 feet.   I was awed by the dimensions.




Blue Tile Wall with colors of the sky on 9/11
Symbolism surrounds you.  A blue tile wall reflects all the colors of the sky on that brilliant day.  The ramp leading down 7 floors (the depth of the debris) follows that used by construction workers. A mangled TV antenna tower represents the end of communication from those at the top.  The aluminum wall surrounding the underground pool symbolized the silver of the original towers.   I was moved by the attention to detail.

Fire Engine that was crushed on 9/11
We were reminded of what went right that day.  Fifteen thousand people got out of the buildings before the collapse.  Injuries were minimal.  I watched a map of the United States go dark as every lit location of airplanes in the air disappeared within hours of the tragedy.  Firefighters worked regardless of whether it was their shift and first responders dug heroically that day and later to be sure all survivors were out.  I felt pride.

In the memorial section, it got harder.  Many of the mementos recovered from the scene are displayed - police helmet, Fireman memorial patch, briefcase used to protect from falling glass, passenger window from the plane, a sign in the Pentagon for Deputy Undersecretary of the Army International Affairs, children’s clothing, telephone, rolodex, clock stopped at 9:37, woman’s black stilettos, dusty tennis shoes, and bicycles.  A photo of abandoned baby carriers in Battery Park captured the panic of the moment.  Newscasts from around the world were available, reminding us of the 90 countries represented in the 3000 that died.   I felt surrounded by sympathy.


This is truly a national memorial as most Americans vividly remember that day.  Patricia Cohen in the New York Times wrote that “reconciling the clashing obligations to recount the history with pinpoint accuracy, to memorialize heroism and to promote healing inevitably required compromise.”  The ability of the Memorial and Museum planners and designers to make those needed decisions really reflect what is good about America – the coming together of different backgrounds, economic levels, nationalities, and skills to create a place to remember and to learn.  Our guide noted that when asked what they remembered that day, many New Yorkers mention the color of the sky, the dust and the kindness on the street.  Incredibly, I was nostalgic – not for the tragedy but for the solidarity.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

"Visit Hasidim" - A Personal Story of Life in Williamsburg‘s Hasidic Community

Freida Vizel, tour guide of Visit Hasidim
 I had seen members of the easily identified Hasidic community strolling in Central Park in Manhattan.  A flight on El Al to Israel was filled with the faithful.  Thousands live in Jerusalem where we tried to engage their children in play but were shooed aside.  And in “The Chosen” and “The Promise”,  well regarded author, Chaim Potok, revealed the inner life of this most private sect of Judiasm.  I knew of them but had never met a member – until our “Visit Hasidim” tour of the Hasidic Community in Williamsburg, a part of Brooklyn. 
Synagogue with Separate Entries for men and women

This branch of Orthodox Judaism was founded in the 18th Century by Baal Shem Tov in Poland and spread throughout Eastern Europe.  Rebbe Tov was a sincere and simple man who believed that an ordinary person who prayed from his heart could be acceptable to God even without being versed in all the Jewish laws.  His mystical approach appealed to the poor and was immediately embraced.  Most of the followers were killed in the Holocaust of WWII but survivors immigrated to Israel and New York and have established a strong presence in various parts of Brooklyn and the New York environs.

Our guide, Freida Vizel, was the 5th of 15 children in her family.  She grew up speaking Yiddish in Kiryas Joel, a thriving Hasidic community north of NYC.  They would often visit her grandmother in Williamsburg .   The family had no radio or TV and only a Yiddish newspaper to bring word of the outside world.  She never saw the  planes slamming into the Twin Towers on 9/11. 

Toy store in Williamsburg
Today, Freida provides a walking tour through the Hasidic community of Williamsburg  which appears rooted in the 1800s.  As this branch of Judaism aged, rules set in again.   Men must wear long black coats, white shirts, fur hats, large beards with side curls, and black shoes.  The women have some more flexibility in dress but married women must shave their heads (so that not a strand of hair can be shown to the public) and wear a scarf, hat or wig.  Since the rabbi must consent to the use of birth control, large families with eight children are common. 

Internet Cafe in Williamsburg
As we walked, Freida revealed the nuances of this life.  She pointed out the synagogue with separate entrances for men and women who sit apart,  a linen store selling single bed covers as husband and wife must sleep separately,  a men’s tailor shop with a selection of only white shirts,  and a school bus with Hebrew lettering for transporting children to yeshivas or schools.  Boys must study the Torah and only receive one-half day per week of secular studies that include science and math.  Girls, surprisingly, get one-half every day in those studies.   Behind one storefront door was an Internet CafĂ© with cubicles where the Orthodox could use properly filtered internet.   Surprisingly, Email is allowed.
School bus to transport children to yeshivas

Freida’s story was most compelling.  At 18, her parents paid a matchmaker $2,000 to find a husband.  Matchmakers consider family compatibility, looks, economics, and personality.  Both families will be given a name and they have an opportunity to “view” the prospective bride and groom.  To accomplish this, Freida was taken to Wal-Mart by her mother who told her to look straight ahead.  Suddenly, it was over when a person quickly walked past.    With both parties liking what they saw, the couple met alone in a family living room for 20 minutes.   When they exited the room, they had to say “yes” or “no”.  Freida knew it wasn’t right but all she could say was “I can’t say no”.  She couldn’t go against her father. 

Freida always knew she was different.  She had a typewriter and had written since a child.  Thirst for knowledge and experiences eventually caused her to leave the community.  Being an obedient wife and mother were no longer enough.   When Freida withdrew four years ago, her husband did not join her and they divorced.

Gottlieb's Restaurant in Williamsburg
During the tour, we stopped at two delicatessens.  In the first, a low wall separated men from women and children.  We had one man on the tour and no one seemed bothered by his presence on the women’s side.  Freida chatted with the owner and brought us hot chocolate.  At tour’s end, we visited Gottlieb’s restaurant where only men were eating.   Working hard to maintain good relationships, Freida again visited with the owner who brought us an array of traditional Jewish dishes. 


This was Freida’s opportunity to ask us questions.  She wanted to know how we would have approached living in her community.  Had we ever self-isolated ourselves?  The women present were sure we wouldn’t have lasted long in such a restrictive environment.   Yet, Freida clearly appreciated her family and respected her former community.   It just wasn’t right for her.  We were lucky to have such an articulate and knowledgeable guide and as my sister-in-law said, “Can’t wait for Freida’s book.”

Monday, March 9, 2015

A Tale of Two Manhattan Museums - The Frick and The Tenement



The Henry Clay Frick Home that now houses the Frick Collection                      

Henry Clay Frick was a very wealthy man.  As one of the “robber barons” of the Guilded Age in the 1880s,  Mr. Frick’s close circle of friends included Andrew Carnegie and Thomas Mellon.    He accumulated his large estate through the mining of coal and production of coke used in steel manufacturing.  His company, in partnership with Carnegie Steel, was the predecessor of United States Steel.  With his earnings, Mr. Frick indulged in his favorite pastime of collecting art – especially Old Masters such as Titian, Rembrandt, Goya, Whistler, Vermeer and El Greco.  This premier collection is housed in the 1912 New York City Upper East Side home he had designed to display his art with the intent that it be the showcase for the Frick Collection.   

Since 1935, the public has been able to view the beautiful art and stunning home setting that Mr. Frick bequeathed to the people of New York City.  Sculptures of marble, bronze and terracotta fill hallways,   natural light from 5th Avenue streams in and benches beckon all to rest and gaze.  If you’re lucky, an organ master will be practicing for a concert on the hidden Aeolian-Skinner Organ, the same fine company that built the organ at Holy Cross Episcopal Church in Paris.  Our two hours hardly seemed enough. 

A very different museum building was constructed as Mr. Frick accumulated his wealth.  Located seventy blocks south on the Lower East Side, the contrast between the Tenement Museum and The Frick was stark.  In 1863,  a five story apartment building was built at 97 Orchard Street, originally populated with German  immigrants.  Over seven hundred beer halls filled the streets.  As  Germans moved out, Eastern European Jews and poor Irish took turns filling the apartments.  



By 1935, as the Frick Collection was opening, seven thousand tenants had occupied this building compared to only two at the Frick mansion.  It is believed the landlord boarded up the building that same year rather than upgrade according to newly developed code.  When reopened and inventoried in 1988,  the Orchard street property was a treasure trove of every day tenant life.   Developers of the museum researched specific families who had occupied the rooms and created tours with their stories.  Of the tours offered, we selected “Sweat Shop Workers”. 

As we entered the dingy building,  light from a single overhead lightbulb gave us the first glimpse of an immigrant’s life.  In the 1880s, the Henry Levine family lived in three rooms where a full scale garment sweat shop employed the family and 3 to 4 more.  Heat, poor ventilation, and work for 14 hour days/7 days a week contributed to high death rates.  Population density in the area equaled 2,791 persons per square block, the highest in the world at the time.  Today, it is only 400. 

Most touching were the mementos found in the apartment.  As our guide noted, “Rats’ nests are great archives.”  A set of girls jacks, large garment scissors, admission ticket to the synagogue,  box of Kasha, a Russian cereal, card for an overdue library book and a Kosher cooking jar all made the Levine family more real.

A second apartment revealed much of the lives of Abraham and Fanny Rogarshevaky in 1911.  Sweat shops had shut down after new regulations limited their viability and large factories opened.  Because women were paid less and Jewish men often were required to study their faith, the daughters of this family worked at a garment/shirtwaist factory. With high ceilings, bright light and ventilation, the factory was an improvement for workers.  But they could also now meet and compare stories of working conditions.

And, this is where the stories of our two museums meet - in the often violent atmosphere of the birthing of the American Labor Movement.  Henry Frick hated labor unions.  He fought them tooth and nail, including hiring hit men to attack strikers at his Homestead Plant and erecting a solid wood wall around the premises.  He thought nothing of hiring scab workers and making offers below the workers' existing salaries.

Across town, female workers at the Triangle Waist Company were submitted to one humiliation after another - clocks purposefully slowed to require more work, being searched as they left to be sure they carried nothing home, 14 hour work days and working above the regulated 7th floor limit in case of fire.  On March 25, 1911, a fire at the company trapped many workers as the door were locked from the outside.  Until 9/11, it was the deadliest workplace disaster in NYC with scenes of women jumping out windows to their deaths.  The disaster galvanized women to join union and socialites  to join the fight leading to improved work conditions.

A good museum teaches, engages, and makes the past personal.  Mr. Frick’s home exemplified the Gilded Age, life of the elite, and the power of money to surround oneself with beauty at the expense of the other 99%.   At the Tenement Museum, it was made clear we owe a great debt to that 99% - immigrants who lived under painful circumstances but persevered so that their descendants could do better.   Thanks to them, we have.

 Frick Collection website                                                                                                                                                   





Sunday, February 8, 2015

What a penny of sales tax with a plan can produce for a community – Oklahoma City’s staged redevelopment through MAPS


Conservatory across the pond at Myriad Gardens downtown

I realize this is a travel column and not a political forum.  And I know raising the sales tax can be very touchy.  But I have been impressed with a program promoted by Oklahoma City to revitalize their downtown area that has produced spectacular results – both in increased tourism and urban living.

In 1993, voters of Oklahoma City approved a dedicated sales tax increase of one penny for MAPS – Metropolitan Area Projects.  To convince the community of this need, the City , Chamber of Commerce and others had spent much time narrowing the use of the new tax revenue.  It was to fund nine projects only.  And the tax would expire in five years.  The taxpayers knew exactly what was to be done with the money and also knew the end date of the tax increase.  It passed with 54% of the vote.

In the next 10 years, the city delivered on its promise.  The Music Hall, Civic Center, and Fairgrounds were renovated. An area of town with old warehouses became Bricktown where a new ballpark and mile long canal were constructed.  A sports arena was built downtown and the riverfront developed along the adjacent Oklahoma River.  City readers cheered at the new four story public library while riding a trolley to get there.   And, all were constructed debt free.

Voters were so impressed they approved a second five year round of the sales tax in 2009.  This money will do much to encourage healthy lifestyles – a 70 acre downtown public park, senior health and wellness centers, and expansion of the city’s trail system to connect urban parks.  Also included is construction of a new Convention Center and Fairground buildings. 
River Walk in Bricktown

The tourist fallout from these projects have been phenomenal.  Families, college students, military personnel on leave, and locals make extensive use of the new offerings.  In Bricktown, many visitors ride the boats, stroll the brick streets, eat at unusual restaurants, shop Bass Pro, and in a lovely stadium watch the Red Hawks play, a AAA team aligned with the Houston Astros.  Next door, Downtown sports new streets, a renovated Cox Convention Center, and the new Chesapeake Energy Sports Arena that was instrumental in snagging the very popular NBA Oklahoma Thunder team. 
Sculpture at Myriad Gardens Downtown OK City

My favorite project was  the beautifully renovated 17 acre Myriad Botanical Gardens.  It’s easy to pass a morning or afternoon in the Gardens exploring its Conservatory, fanciful playground, a genuine hidden garden, and water sprays that cool and delight in the summer.   Ice skating is available in the winter. 

In 2009, only one large hotel with 400 rooms hung out downtown.  According to the OKC Chamber of Commerce,  $200 million of capital investment has now gone into hotels because of the MAPS success.  There are currently thirteen hotels with most large hotel chains represented either in Bricktown or Downtown and two refurbished historic hotels.

 Nearby areas have also prospered.  Next door to Bricktown is Deep Deuce, the historic African American commercial and jazz center most recently filled with empty lots.  New low-rise apartment buildings are filling that void.   Young adults and empty nesters have jumped at the opportunity to live in an urban area. 

Just north of downtown is Mid-Town with its brick paved Broadway, once filled with automobile dealerships but now hosting a coffee roaster, bike shops, gift stores, and much more.  Across Mid-town, old apartment buildings are being transformed and new ones built.  Fassler Hall and Dust Bowl, a  bowling alley/beer hall just opened along with a nearby food truck park.  New restaurants seem to appear weekly.  None of these projects are publicly funded but they progressed naturally from the redevelopment of nearby Bricktown and Downtown.   The OKC Chamber of Commerce estimates a tenfold return on the original MAPS investment.

And I haven’t even mentioned the third MAPS election that supported education.  MAPS for Kids passed in 2001 and by completion, 70 schools had been renovated or newly constructed, including one elementary school downtown.  $52 million went for technology projects and $9 million to replacement of the bus fleet.  Oklahoma City residents have recognized the need to invest in their community and schools without saddling the next generation with debt.


View of downtown from Myriad Gardens
National Geographic Travel magazine named Oklahoma City as one of the best trips in 2015.  That probably surprised a few folks out there but not me.  This recognition can be traced directly back to the penny sales tax with a plan.  In every election, promoters were able to demonstrate the effective use of the previous penny sales tax while including a vision of the next project.  It’s a model we should all consider if ever we want our own hometown to be a premier tourist destination.  Oh, and, you should go visit.  How many premier travel destinations are just three and a half hours away?

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Spending Martin Luther King Jr.'s Birthday in Dallas, Texas

Statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. at MLK Center in Dallas, Texas

Martin Luther King Jr.’s actual birth date is January 15th and this year a visit to the African American Museum in Dallas seemed appropriate.   After a hefty soul food lunch at Sweet Georgia Brown’s, we decided to also explore the area for signs of MLK’s influence and presence as well as the history of Dallas’ historical black community.
  

Newspaper photograph from 1963
Many towns and cities have a street named after the civil rights leader and Dallas is no exception.  MLK drive leads from Interstate 45 to the Fairgrounds and was lined with banners promoting events for Monday’s holiday.  The street also passes other entities named for King – M.L. King, Jr. Recreation Center, M.L. King, Jr. Library, and most importantly, the M.L. King, Jr. Complex containing a tiny Civil Rights museum.  There we discovered a January, 1963 photo of King in Dallas with local activists gathered to protest the Texas Poll Tax.  Texas was one of five lingering states in 1963 that still charged to vote - $1.75.  Abolishing this tax was one of the major goals of King’s civil rights movement.  Later that year, an election in Texas was held to do just that.  Even with both parties supporting the abolition, the tax survived, thus requiring federal courts to strike down the law in 1966. 

Also in the community outreach center was a traveling exhibit called “the Pathway to Freedom”.  Last year, a Freedom Ride Tour took 60 students and chaperones to Little Rock, Memphis, Montgomery and Selma in an effort to relive history and continue the legacy of Dr. King.  As with any movement, it’s easy to become complacent and unappreciative of rights bought with blood.  I’m sure Dr. King would be disappointed and sad to learn of the low turnout of African American voters in most elections.  The Freedom Ride Tour is meant not only to educate participants of their heritage but also to encourage involvement in the ongoing need to protect civil rights.    Outside the MLK Center, a larger-than-life bronze statue of King stands, depicting him in motion with his suit coat folded over one arm,  the other arm upraised as if he were talking, convincing others of his cause.  
Second floor of African American Museum
in Dallas, Texas - modeled after an Ethiopia Church

A local cause realized was the African American Museum on the State Fairgrounds.  It is a beautiful structure with window and floor design taken from an Ethiopian church.  Opened in 1993, its mission is to preserve visual art forms and historical documents that relate to the African American community. .The entry area drew in light from windows on two levels, lifting our eyes to the wooden circular roof, reminiscent of an African thatched hut.   As a small time collector of folk art, I enjoyed the museum’s folk art collection that included works by Clementine Hunter.  In the fine arts section, artist John Biggers is represented with a work I thought paled in comparison to his piece at the Paris Public Library.   Most intriguing was the Freedmen Cemetery Exhibit that detailed a thriving black community near downtown from the Civil War to the 1970s. 

Artist LaToya M. Hobbs with her exhibit
at African American Museum in Dallas
The highlight of our visit was time spent with LaToya M. Hobbs, an artist originally from Arkansas, currently living in Baltimore.  Her solo exhibit filled one hall with large, strong paintings and collages of African American women, all known to the artist.   As Ms. Hobbs wrote, her works are “an investigation of the point where the notions of race, identity and beauty intersect concerning women of African descent. “  A particular emphasis was on the variety of color and texture of the subjects’ hair, a common discussion in her community.  It pained her that women of color would still judge others by the tone of  skin and texture of hair when all should be celebrating their diversity within the race.  In the center of the room were stacked paper bags printed with answers given by her subjects to the question of the color of their skin – golden, chocolate, high yellow, caramel, dark chocolate, roasted chestnut, and bronze.  As my companion, Sherry Scott, noted, Ms. Hobbs’ exhibit was the most politically charged experience we had as the artist continued Dr. King’s legacy of promoting respect for those different than you.


The day ended as we explored surviving buildings near downtown that once housed parts of the prior African American community – The Grand Lodge of the Colored Knights of Pythia where George Washington Carver demonstrated his sweet potato products in 1923 to a crowd of 800,  Booker T. Washington High School, for years the only black high school in Dallas but now a formidable arts magnet school, and St. Paul United Methodist church, long a political, cultural and social center.   We could just detect the outline of the past African American community, now bisected by a freeway.   It was a part of Dallas new to us and worth the time to explore.  I just wish there were guided tours available.  Maybe next time.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Having Coffee with a Santeria Priest

In Parque Central of downtown Havana, a young man of African descent carried a large blue ceramic jar decorated with shells and other treasures of the sea.  Our guide pointed him out explaining the jar would hold the spirits of the Santeria religion, referred to by practitioners as Regla de Ocha or owner of heaven.  We were to learn much more of this belief system during our visit.

In Cuba, slaves’ African heritage flourished more easily underground.  Up top, the bonded were required to become Catholics but in slave quarters, an African could maintain his old practice while recognizing its similarity to Christianity.  A god from the old country often matched up with a saint in the new world.  For those of Yoruba,Nigeria origin, a statue of Saint Barbara could double for an Oricha or deity from that region.  By doing this, a slave would not be at risk of betraying Christianity while maintaining old beliefs.  In fact, many saw no contradiction – just a parallel way of worship.
Larry Vives Lopez and his son

Today, this double worship is most visible in Santeria, translated as a devotion to saints in Spanish.  In the African community, the devotion is to Orichas or deities often paired with Catholic saints.  There’s even a name for this weaving together of beliefs – religious syncretism. 

During a walking tour of the Vedado section of Havana, we turned down a residential street.   On the stoop of one home, a handsome, gray haired man called out to our guide.  They had worked together years before at a museum but hadn’t had much contact since.  He invited us into his modest home for coffee – a time honored Cuban tradition. 

Julia Marino was excited for us to meet Larry Vives Lopez as he is a priest in the Santeria religion.  Our plan that afternoon had been to visit the Yoruba Cultural Center to learn more of the Santeria gods and it was fortuitous to first meet a practitioner.   Larry smiled easily and agreed to answer any questions we had.  But first, he wanted to know our birthdays.  Using a divination necklace, a priest can determine which deity is assigned to your day of birth. Both Larry and I belonged to Elegua, owner of the road, the first and last to receive homage, the one who shows a way home – very appropriate for a peripatetic wanderer like me who hoped for good travel karma.  For my traveling companion, Tina Smith, her deity was the maternal Yemaya,  a guardian angel and the one who was a grandmother over grandchildren – equally appropriate for a mother and grandmother of four and one indebted to a guardian angel.

We were charmed by Larry and his son, also a priest, trained by his father.  As a French professor, Larry’s work had waned in recent days, allowing him more time for his pastoral duties.  He chatted easily of other American visitors, one of whom had bragged of having no problems.  Larry sensed otherwise and was able to identify his marital discord without the man’s disclosure.  The American was so amazed he went back to his wife. 

For Orisha followers, the home contains the altar.  We again saw the ceramic jars on Larry’s shelves, holding his deity.  When asked if a photo could be taken of him and his son,  he permitted it saying he was more “liberal” than others.  They put on their round hats and green and yellow beads representing Elegua, and posed with bright eyes but no smiles. 

They were leaving soon for a conference in Mexico to talk of their religion and Larry needed a ride downtown to check on his visa. The Cuban government had recognized practitioners of Santeria as a religion, making it easier for its priests to travel abroad.   We were going to the Yoruba Cultural Center anyway and all squeezed into a taxi. 

On the second floor of the center, 29 of the 401 Orishas or gods were manifested by carved figures with explanations for the powers of each.  In addition, many had references to the Catholic saint who most resembled the god.  In front of some of the figures were baskets with offerings made by believers.   No photos were allowed.
Store at the Yoruba Cultural Center in Havana

 Downstairs, a store sold beautiful ceramic vessels, beads for the various gods, walking sticks wrapped in bright colors, dancing dolls and even a tapestry of the Virgin Mary.  It was tempting to bring home the beads of Elegua but it didn’t feel right.  They belonged with the believers of this historical religion, orally passed down by those who survived an ocean crossing and years of slavery.  Larry Lopez was one of those and with his warm welcome and sincere sharing of Santeria, his beliefs won our respect.  

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