An American Abroad

Advice to a Foreign Traveler Visiting America

I connected on Twitter recently with Joanna Bieleń woman from Stalowa Wola, Poland who, like me, has traveled some but wants to do more.

(By the way, if you’re not following me on Twitter, you should. My feed centers on travel and living abroad.)

Joanna and I were chatting about our travels when she asked me a great question: “What are your favourite places in the USA? It is really interesting for me. My passion is tourism, culture and history.” As we chatted further, she clarified that she was interested in the lesser-known American destinations.

I accepted Joanna’s challenge, put on my thinking cap, and came up with my own best-of-list. My selections are based on personal visits to each of the places I recommend. Like all such lists, it reflects the interests and biases of the person who wrote it. I like a to see a mix of big, medium, and small cities and rural locations. I’ve included several towns associated with excellent colleges and universities; I find college towns to be vibrant and interesting, though others might disagree. I’ve tried to include a representative sample of American regions and cultures. And I’ve tried to avoid the obvious; no one needs me to tell them that New York and the Grand Canyon are amazing places.

The pictures here are not mine and are believed to be either in the public domain or used under license.

Here, then, is my list for Joanna — and for anyone else who wants to see a good variety of the USA.

Vermont

Surely a candidate for America’s most beautiful state, Vermont is located in New England, the oldest corner of the country.

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The rolling green hills and well-tended farms make for pleasant driving, biking, and motorcycling. All of the best aspects of New England are on display here among the locals: flinty self-reliance, supportive communities, common sense, tolerance for the occasional eccentric, and an appreciation for the land and its beauty. Fall is the best time to visit; the trees flame red and gold all over the hills and valleys.


Ithaca, New York

Ithaca is an old city of 30,000 people located in a beautiful part of upstate New York.

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For years now, the city has promoted itself with the tagline “Ithaca is gorges,” which puns on the similarity of the word “gorgeous” and the word “gorges.” It’s an apt slogan, since outdoor recreation opportunities abound there. The town is located at the tip of one of the Finger Lakes. Parts of Ithaca appear to have been literally carved out of the nearby granite cliffs. There is a sense there of something very old, unquestionably American, and faintly mysterious. Though Ithaca is a small town, it’s got a vibrant cultural and intellectual life, thanks to the presence of Cornell University, an Ivy League college.


Chicago, Illinois

Although Chicago is America’s third most populous city, it’s sometimes overlooked by foreign tourists who focus on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

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Its downtown is far more concentrated and architecturally distinguished than Los Angeles, and its streets are broader and have a more muscular feel than those of New York. Chicago feels more livable than either of those coastal cities and its people have a midwestern down-to-earth attitude that is sometimes in short supply on the ocean coasts. It has many distinguished universities, great shopping areas, lots of parks, a rich architectural heritage, and a wealth of cultural and athletic activities. For those reasons and more, Chicago is my favorite of America’s ten largest cities.


Iowa City, Iowa

When you’re in Iowa City, you’re definitely in what Americans confusingly call “the midwest” (even though much of it is located in the eastern half the country).

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Some people cynically refer to the American midwest as “flyover country,” suggesting that there is no reason to actually touch down there. Those people, though, have obviously not been to Iowa City. It’s a university town, home to the highly-regarded University of Iowa and the celebrated Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Bricks laid into some of the sidewalks there bear the signatures of some of the many great writers who have passed through that program. The university’s presence has also brought banking, high-tech, and educational publishing/testing companies to town, giving the place a hip, intelligent, prosperous feel. There’s plenty for a traveler to do by way of attending concerts, plays and lectures, going shopping, and cycling around town.


Eureka Springs, Arkansas

Eureka Springs is in the south, but not entirely of it.

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It’s a small town in the Ozark Mountains that’s unlike anything else in Arkansas. Originally built as a spa town for the movers and shakers of the late 19th century, Eureka Springs has quaint old mountain Victorian houses and grand hotels. No two streets run parallel or intersect at right angles. While this part of the country is generally very conservative and traditional, Eureka Springs has attracted an outsized share of LGBT people, artists, and other free spirits. For those more religiously inclined, there is the beautiful contemporary glass-and-wood Thorncrown Chapel set into the woods nearby. Sitting in its pews feels almost like sitting alone in the forest in the presence of the divine.


New Orleans, Louisiana

New Orleans is one of a kind.

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Alhough it has a different culture, heritage, legal system, and accent from the rest of the United States, some of America’s most famous contributions to world culture come from the city they call The Big Easy. You can still hear traditional jazz at the Preservation Hall, dig the roots of blues on almost every street corner, and dance to authentic zydeco just a few miles out of town. Gumbo, jambalaya, voodoo, ghost stories, mardi gras, musical funerals, and every manner of intoxicating spirits known to humankind all mix together in the city they call The Big Easy. There is no other city in America remotely like it.


Austin, Texas

Austin is the capital of Texas, but it’s much more than that.

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Austin is home to a fabulous music scene, including the Austin City Limits Festival and the South by Southwest music and film festival. Music pervades the city. The airport there is the only airport I have ever been to where there are live musicians playing. Eccentricity is not just tolerated — it is officially encouraged with the same of “Keep Austin Weird!” t-shirts and paraphernalia. Though much of Texas is a very conservative place, Austin (like Eureka Springs and Iowa City) is far more progressive than the state to which it belongs.


Taos, New Mexico

Taos, a small city in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of northern New Mexico, has been home to many artists and writers who are drawn there by the brilliant blue skies, the dry desert climate, and the artful buildings and design of the old pueblo there.

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Home to such artists and writers as Dennis Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe, D.H. Lawrence, Mark Rothko, Aldous Huxley, and Ansel Adams, Taos surely has more art galleries per capita than almost anywhere else in the world. There is a thriving art colony there that continues to draw creative people to this unique American community. Hiking, skiing and river rafting also attract their share visitors. Taos Pueblo, the Native American village that adjoins the town, is a UNESCO World Heritage site noted for being “a remarkable example of a traditional type of architectural ensemble from the pre-Hispanic period of the Americas and unique to this region which has successfully retained most of its traditional forms to the present day. Thanks to the determination of the latter-day Native American community, it appears to be successfully resisting the pressures of modern society.”


Ouray, Colorado

Ouray is comprised of elegant mountain Victorian buildings nestled among the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado.

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This is one of the most beautiful places in the American west. The mountains surrounding the town are visible in all their grandeur everywhere you look. Like Eureka Springs, it was originally built as a hot springs spa town, but today is better known for its variety of outdoor recreation activities, from skiing to cycling to hiking to hot air ballooning. The people there seemed almost unnaturally fit. The political culture is generally liberal, but with more than a dash of libertarian don’t-tell-me-what-to-do rebelliousness.


Portland, Oregon

Thanks in part to the popular Portlandia television show, Portland is experiencing a wave of hipster chic in the US today.

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Portland a medium-sized city that is home to a number of craft breweries, mild weather, strip joints, bike paths, and food trucks selling chow from every corner of the globe. There’s a strong ecological consciousness there at both the personal and governmental levels. There’s also a quirky intellectualism about the town, a larger-scale version of Reed College, the academically intense and socially eclectic liberal arts college that’s located in one of the residential neighborhoods. Foodies will enjoy Portland for its culinary adventuresomeness and variety, while readers will want to spend a full day in Powell’s Books, one of the world’s largest used bookstores. The town is handsome, but not stunningly beautiful. Beauty, though is provided courtesy of nature and the Cascade Mountains that rise above the valley where the city sits.

Toledo, Ohio: My Hometown

When I was growing up here, I couldn’t wait to leave. At seventeen, I lit out for the territories and swore on a metaphorical stack of bibles that I would never ever ever return to Toledo. I managed to stay away for nineteen years before returning. When I came back, I planned to stay just a little while. But inertia, the low cost of living, and the excellent school system in the suburb where I lived kept me and my family here.

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But I wasn’t happy about it.

One day while I was driving around town with my son Spencer, I started talking smack about Toledo. To my surprise, my son didn’t share my sentiment. “Dad,” he insisted, “Toledo’s got soul!”

“Whaddaya mean?” I asked.

“People here keep getting kicked in the mouth,” he said. “Layoffs. Downsizing. Factories closing. Stores gone out of business. Crappy political leadership.”

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“But,” he continued, “Toledoans get up every morning and go to work, go to school, do their thing, and by and large they do it with a good attitude. They have every right to be bitter, but generally they’re not. They’ve got soul.”

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With that conversation, I began to make peace with my hometown.

I’ve been away from Toledo again for the better part of two years, traveling through other countries. Now that I’m back in town for a while, I’m determined to explore the city in the same way that I explored cities on the other side of the planet. And so this evening when the sunlight was golden, I went out and shot the kind of photos I’ve taken in Kuala Lumpur, Istanbul, and Chicago.

As I’ve done in those cities, I focused initially on public art: the authorized, the unauthorized, and the unintended.

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3rd Friday Open Studios at Bridgeport Art Center, Chicago

I’m back in Chicago and venturing further outside Hyde Park. On a warm clear spring evening, I went to the Bridgeport neighborhood, where a big old warehouse has been converted to studio space for dozens of artists. On the third Friday of every month, the center opens its doors to the public to come look. And so I did.

The Bridgeport Art Center is housed in the old Spiegel Catalog warehouse on West 35th Street. It’s a fabulous space with hundreds of tall windows, exposed brick walls, enormous industrial sliding doors, beautifully distressed hardwood floors, capacious elevators, and soaring skylights. The interior has been built out into studio spaces of varying sizes, ranging from spaces that are only slightly larger than office cubicles to large rooms containing fully-equipped carpentry workshops. Many of the artists’ studios were works of art themselves.

I wandered into room 4011, Tamara Wasserman’s studio. Tamara was born in Riga, emigrated to Jerusalem in her teens, and moved to Chicago in her adult years. Her speech is crisp and melodic, with charming notes of Latvian, Hebrew, and Chicagoese. I wasn’t surprised to learn that she derives most of her income as a simultaneous translator — that is, when she isn’t working as a puppeteer. I loved her work, especially a painting with a Gauginesque central figure, mysterious open empty boxes, and scrawled Cyrillic lettering. It was, of course, the one canvas in her studio that was not for sale.

Here are the tools of her trade:

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I’m always reluctant to photograph the creations of working artists. I make an exception for Unauthorized Public Art, since I reckon that the artists who create it offer it for free to the public at large. So although I was invited to, I didn’t photograph the works in Tamara’s studio or anyone else’s. The photo below was not taken by me, however, and is posted on Tamara’s website. The painting above and behind Tamara is the one I was so taken by.

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Between the old warehouse and a stagnant riverway, next to a bridge pier, a big man in a dirty kilt had started a fire fueled by discards from his woodshop. The small blaze drew people like moths.

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The studio building’s fire escape loomed above us. The sky at the moment where dusk slides into night was impossibly blue. I looked up and felt a touch of vertigo.

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Rolls of razor wire were spun next to the bridge above us, presumably to prevent people from getting to the very place where we sat.

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There was a forbidding steel door in the pier that supported the bridge. I tried it out of habit and, to my surprise, found that it was unlocked. Inside, under the roadway, there was evidence that someone had recently (with apologies to W.S. Mewrwin) “there established his bad castle.”

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One of the people sitting by the fire saw a river rat saunter by. I stayed a little while longer enjoying the first warm night of the year and, as I have done in so many other places, vowed to return someday.

Framed

Last month, I took some photos of unauthorized public art around Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. One of them featured this work:

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I took this photo because I was attracted to the Betty Boop vibe the original artist painted in. The girl’s missing mouth creates ambiguity in her expression — is it pride? happiness? thoughtfulness? strength? sorrow? The chips and cracks of age actually seem to improve the image and give it it an enduring quality, like the city itself.

A partner in one of Chicago’s larger law firms saw my original blog post and wanted this pic blown up and framed. I was thrilled. And so here it is, ready to move to its new home downtown.

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Having someone like my photos enough to want to reproduce them, as happened here and happened with my photos of the Hanoi Hilton, is immensely gratifying. If any of my readers want to purchase any of the photos on my blog, please contact me. I would be honored.

Robie House

A house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright sits uncomfortably on the campus of the University of Chicago.

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Robie House was built in 1910 for a Chicago businessman named Frederick C. Robie. Robie lived there only a short time, and the property was eventually acquired by the Chicago Theological Seminary, which planned to demolish the house to put up a student dorm. In 1957, Wright himself (then 90 years old) returned to Chicago to protest these plans. He commented, “It all goes to show the danger of entrusting anything spiritual to the clergy.”

By 1963, the house had been donated to the University of Chicago, which still owns it today. Unfortunately, the university hasn’t shown much more spiritual appreciation for Wright’s designs than the seminarians did.

An undistinguished cheap-looking four-story building now looms behind Robie House. In 2004, the university put up a monstrous business school building directly across the street. Light- and sign-poles dot the sidewalks beside the house, cluttering up almost every view of the premises. Wright’s masterpiece of balance and harmony now looks crowded and a little forlorn, though this latter observation may be due to the fact that a restoration is supposedly underway.

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Though the house’s overall impact has been sadly diminished by the incoherent sprawl of buildings around it, Robie House’s individual details remain intact and wonderful to behold.

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Farewell to Pilsen

I’m leaving Chicago later today, but before I go I wanted to post more street art pix from the Pilsen neighborhood. This series seems to be the most obviously Mexican in origin.

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Love is Torture, Love is a Delight

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Yeah, ain’t it the truth?

My friend Aaron Nathan directed me to these walls on 16th Street where it crosses Ashland in Chicago’s Lower West Side Pilsen neighborhood. I appreciate the advice; I never would have found them on my own. Pilsen is home to many Mexican families, and you can see the Latin American influence in the Day of the Dead images, among others.

Not everyone here shares my enthusiasm for this unauthorized public art. One local politician calls graffiti “a cancer on the city” and “the second biggest problem that we have, after shootings.” That seems a bit hyperbolic, doesn’t it? Meanwhile, the mayor of Chicago wants to increase the fines for graffiti from $750 to between $1,500 and $2,500. I suppose that the hand-wringing over graffiti is directed more toward people who tag public property with gang symbols than it is toward muralists like the ones who create the images I’ve been posting. But the law makes no distinction between a gang tag and a work of art. It’s sometimes hard to tell the difference.

Under the “broken windows” theory of policing, graffiti can make people feel unsafe, which causes people to shy away from the places where they see it, and which in turn creates a situation where the bad guys rule the streets. Perhaps that’s true. I also understand that not all graffiti is as beautiful as the murals I’ve photographed. My point is only that when I saw these walls in Pilsen, I felt more safe. The street felt happy, joyous, loved, and like a real neighborhood. I would actually have felt a little apprehensive walking around the area if I only saw ugly blank decaying concrete and cinder block walls.

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The Giant Rat of Sumatra, Discovered

    “Matilda Briggs was not the name of a young woman, Watson,” said Holmes in a reminiscent voice. “It was a ship which is associated with the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared.”
    The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire

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We now know that the giant rat of Sumatra made its way to Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, where it met a grisly end. The event was immortalized on a METRA viaduct at 16th and Ashland. Those wishing to see how giant a giant rat is are invited to click on the above photo.

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I wasn’t investigating vampirism. I came for the rat, which is often photographed and displayed online. But I found much more than a megarodent. Weird game pieces. Sponge Bob character rejects. Robbie the Robot. Don Quixote. Spontaneous abstract expressionism. Fleeing immigrants. And a guy with a big hat.

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The 27th Street Gallery — Part 2

One of the best books I’ve read this year is Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.

The story is set in a post-plague future where 99% of humanity is dead and the remaining few live mean and difficult lives. But the book is actually about the human need to make art, even in the most terrible of circumstances. A group of musicians and actors travels around the Great Lakes through the ruins of civilization. They play classical music and perform Shakespeare for whatever hardscrabble audiences they find. The banner on their caravan displays a quote from Star Trek: Voyager‘s Seven of Nine: “Survival is insufficient.” In this ruined future, pop cultural artifacts from the past such as graphic novels and celebrity gossip magazines are treasured and held in awe to the same degree as Shakespeare and Beethoven, though for different reasons.

I was thinking about this book as I continued my walk around 27th Street, Chicago, where it intersects Kedzie. Earlier this year, I beheld the Roman ruins at Bulla Regia and spent time communing with Amphitrite and her chums on the floor of in an underground house. Was that mosaic the graphic novel of its day? Do we venerate and preserve it nowadays in part because we know that there will be no more Roman mosaics? And if a Station Eleven-style plague really did ravage our civilization, would the graffiti murals at 27th and Kedzie one day be venerated by the descendants of our survivors? And would those descendants appreciate the murals all the more because of their incredulous understanding that such art was actually illegal in the civilization that produced it?

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The 27th Street Gallery — Part 1

When I arrived in Chicago, among the first questions I asked friends and acquaintances was where to go to see good graffiti — unauthorized public art. Betsy Rubin, who, like me enjoys photographing such stuff, suggested I check out 27th Street where it crosses Kedzie. Yesterday morning it was clear and sunny here for a change, so I took her suggestion.

The intersection turned out to be in Little Village, a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood with a friendly feel to it. The walls that elevate the METRA tracks there have been turned into a de facto outdoor gallery that shows off some amazing work.

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I was here:

The images lining the walls are strong and precise. They’re perfectly proportioned. The colors pop and reveal often intricate details. Now consider that the artists who created them didn’t have control over their site and that they were working illegally, probably dodging police patrols during the night hours. Consider, too, that their work could lawfully be painted over, sandblasted, and destroyed by the authorities in a day. As I suspect the artists intended, I kept thinking about those challenges as I walked along the walls. There’s a certain how-did-they-do-that boastfulness in their works that, for me, contributes to the sense of wonder and delight I got when I was looking at them.

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