Although 2020 may seem a time when the heavens plotted against each living soul on the earth, a little reflection will show we are not the only afflicted humans and stars still come out to light the year ahead.
“Joy, prayers and gratitude are the three attitudes that prepare us to live Christmas in an authentic way,” Pope Francis noted in 2017 in his traditional prayer of thanksgiving. Two years earlier, visiting New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, he said: “It will do us good to think back on our lives with the grace of remembrance. . .to grow in spiritual gratitude.”
You could say that was easy for him to say three years ago, but today 80 million people in 217 countries have been affected with the virus and 1.75 million around the globe have died, most of them alone without family. Here in the U.S. we’ve had 18.8 million cases and 330,000 deaths.
Yet a little light at the end of the tunnel is shining. While this crisis isn’t over, parts of the country are still in the middle of a vicious fight, but the approval of a vaccine gives hope that by spring or early summer enough Americans will be vaccinated against Covid to free us from its scourge. Plans are underway to open elementary classrooms by late Spring, giving parents more time to earn a living while teachers teach.
We’re getting accustomed to cooking our own food, trying new recipes, polishing our own nails, cutting our own hair, washing our own cars (or letting them be)—it’s a do-it-yourself world—as we maintain social distancing while serving human activities. Have you developed a new appreciation for the people who have served you throughout your day?
That’s gratitude and this year we shouldn’t wait until Thanksgiving to offer words of appreciation to those around us. Your words and generosity can encourage your family and friends and may lift-up those discouraged in the value of their work at this most enlightened time of year. Waste not a moment in reaching out in earned praise, to share comfort, and joy in being alive—to fight another day!
A wise friend of mine shared words of gratitude with me that I try, and sometimes fail, to model:
“Wear gratitude like a cloak and it will feed every corner of your life.” Rumi
Stay tuned: – Thomas Edison’s Factory of Invention applied to 2021 next week.
Get lost in the beauty of an unending horizon, either sunset or sunrise. Wild and wonderful and more than 100 miles from any transportation hub—so you will not be inundated with tourists. (Obviously during a Pandemic, this probably is not a concern, but isolation is increasing the park’s popularity.)
Now is a good time to find a solitary spot of beauty, right? And wild wilderness among 1200 square miles, featuring the soaring, forested Chisos Mountains (8,000 feet), the summer’s torrid desert is winter’s special treat, surrounded by the curvy Rio Grande that names the park. (Reservations are required if you become adventurous and are thinking about hijacking your holiday plans for a trip to Texas’s Southwest desert.)
What could be better than a long tromp in the woods? Not just anywhere but seemingly at the edge of the world where red canyons and soaring mountains meet. The Lost Mine Trail exists thanks to FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps, composed mainly of local Hispanic workers who toiled from 1933 to 1942 to cut that path and build the road up the side of the Chisos Mountains, which allowed the park to open in 1944, as World War II still raged in Europe. Big Bend officially opened a week after the Normandy Invasion—D-Day, June 6.
Today there is nothing like gazing at the stars in nature’s beauty to renew the spirit and to remind us that this, too, will pass. Do not know about you, but my spirit could use a bit of levitation about now. At Big Bend the natural beauty speaks of the continuity of life—cycle after cycle—lifting the mind to a higher plain.
Timeless nature can renew the soul–civilization has made it through this before. Well, maybe not exactly THIS, but plenty of struggles and mankind managed to wiggle out only to emerge again.
If the stars hold a fascination for you, this is the place to come. It is a paradise away from city lights. See the canopy of stars as you have never seen it before stretching out before you in all directions—from the valley floor to the top of Chisos, 8,000 feet closer to the sky!
Perhaps you are drawn to the flora and fauna of the desert and the mountains. Here the cycles of light and dark are perfect for these delicate marvels. Ocotillo (Oh-co-TEE-yo) captured my attention, featuring limestone-toned spikes 20 to 30 feet tall growing sharps where others feature flowers—nothing to capture your attention, except particularly in spring, red-orange, tubular flowers burst forth in late March or early April. Some refer to them as living rock cactus.
“Don’t Fence Me In”
The year Big Bend opened Gene Autry caught America’s attention with the tune, “Don’t Fence Me In,” which seemed to be the theme of the park early on and Texas forever. 1944 proved to be a productive year. A Harvard professor developed the first automatic digital computer, which would go through many, many renovations before it reduced to the 13-inch marvel on my desk. Oswald Avery isolated DNA and FDR began his fourth term as President. And the Rio Grand just kept on flowing and bending to the southwest, then the northwest, rolling on, providing continuity in 1944 as it does today, nearly 80 years later. The pictures tell the story. I will leave the link, so you can “visit” with your eyes if the multi-hour car trip is not in your Christmas schedule this year. Enjoy and rest your mind. 2021 will come quickly enough.
We are not the only folks with a “Main Street.” Some people think of it as a place of commerce; others the center of community—libraries, coffee shops, courthouses, where you pay your taxes or utilities. For others it is where they congregate for prayer or purchase a goat, the most valuable item you will own. Your needs depend on where you live around the globe. But we all bleed the same, live under a canopy of stars, and are capable of contracting Covid-19 because it is 2020 and we are human beings.
You might be familiar with some of the better-known main streets in the world:
Nanjing Road, Shanghai, the #1 Chinese commerce district with 360 stores stretching to The Bund on the Huangpu River, facing the stunning Oriental Pearl Tower.
“The Main,”Boulevard Saint Laurent that bisects Montreal, linking affluent residential neighborhoods to the north and the garment district, Little Italy, and Vieus (Old) Montreal with its seaport.
Cat Street, Tokyo, Japan, joins two of the city’s most vibrant and artistic neighborhoods, Shibuya and Harajuku, drawing the city’s youthful and creative cultures and allowing pedestrians to avoid battling Tokyo traffic.
London’s Camden High Street draws people from every corner of the globe who come via underground Tube to its unique architecture, independent shops, and markets.
Las Ramblas in downtown Barcelona brings together three pedestrian-oriented streets for an eclectic mix of retail, kiosk sales, eateries, markets, exhibitions, museums, cultural institutions, and pubs.
Champs-Elysees in Paris, considered by some to be the most celebrated promenade in the world, is a 2.6-mile-wide boulevard lined with outdoor cafes, theaters, and boutiques that stretches from the Place de la Concorde to the Place Charles de Gaulle with the Arche de Triumph rises along this path. In 1610 Louis XIV had his architects draw up plans for the promenade to provide an impressive view from the Tuileries garden.
Many world travelers are missing this shopping season in far-flung places. Others may never travel beyond a 10-mile radius of the tin-roofed structure they call home. Dharavi, the slum on the edge of Mumbai, India, the setting for the movie “Slumdog Millionaire,” houses 800,000 people in a single square mile. Flimsy structures are built cheek to jowl and vertically. The density is 10 X that of Manhattan. People there have a high risk of getting the Coronavirus. By 2030 at the current rate, there will be 1 billion people living in slums worldwide.
In late July 2020 health workers tested and found 110,000 people tested positive for the Covid-19. The infection rate in Dharavi went s high as 57 percent. Not unexpected in such a densely populated place with one latrine for every eight families, many of whom struggle for food and clean water. It is not uncommon for eight people to live in a tin-roof structure the size of a small American bedroom.
But as of December 12, 2020, the slum dwellers are surviving at a higher rate than people in the US who have soft beds, warm food, ample access to a shower, and a bathroom. Rather astounding. India, the country neck-and-neck with China for the highest population in the world, has a total of 9.88 million COVID-19 cases, while the US stands at the top of the world with 16.58 million cases. The nation embarked on a campaign to educate slum inhabitants about the disease and provide safety kits. This year, according to December 11 figures, India has a total of 143,389 people who have died of the disease. While in the US more than twice as many deaths have occurred: 305,362. Just under 10,000 more active cases are active in the US, compared with India with 37,762. Worldwide 72.4 million people have contracted COVID-19 and 1.62 million people have died of the disease. There are 312,030 total cases now being treated.
Many of the shopping districts in Europe are home to nations still struggling to manage the disease. France ranks fifth worldwide; the United Kingdom ranks sixth and Spain ninth. America’s neighbors: Mexico at thirteenth, Canada at 47th. In Asia, which has had longer to wrangle the disease: Japan 46 and China 79. The first vaccines went out to England last week and will reach some American cities on Monday.
We hope the vaccine will be the beginning of the end, although it is expected to take at least three months to complete inoculations and people will be persuaded to take the vaccine to protect not just themselves, but their families, neighbors, and their communities—the Main Streets–that surround them.
Writer Alice Walker shares a universal thought in 2020. “Though the heart is breaking, happiness can exist in a moment, and because the moment in which we live is all the time there really is, we can keep going.” Existing until the next moment, we savor the moments we have. As this season of sharing and universal understanding circles the globe, may we find solace in the humanity we share with others, no matter where they reside on the globe. May we all take a moment to consider the critical impact the little decisions we make can have on others as we share Main Street.
I knew where Main Street was when I was eight. When the temperature dropped and darkness came around dinnertime, my heart beat faster. The biggest event of the year on Main Street in Huntington, Indiana, (population: around 16,000) would be soon.
On a crisp Saturday morning my younger brother and I bundled up in our snowsuits and gathered our next-door neighbors to race down to Main Street. We heard the merry strains of “Jingle Bells” wafting from loudspeakers tied to streetlights along the way. The size of the crowd in front of Penny’s was perfect—room for us to fit in to have a good view of Santa Claus, but enough people standing around to make it cozy—a break against the wind. Penny’s being the last stop where Santa got out and threw candy to the crowd of eager youngsters.
This annual parade became ho-hum to parents familiar with Sheriff Jones, who dressed up in a red suit and a white beard to ride the sleigh each year. If he could have hung a “Vote Sheriff Jones May 4” banner across the front of the sleigh, he would have. Instead, he pitched tasty, peppermint candies wrapped with his holiday greeting, “Vote Sheriff Jones May 4.” We ignored his speechmaking but followed his advice to begin the season’s shopping.
Our parents would haul us into Penny’s Department Store, where we stopped to see the whisp of gray smoke rise from the Lionel train circling a miniature Toy Town, dancing bears, and talking dolls—offering a lame resemblance to Macy’s windows, a half continent away. But we did not know any better then.
Decades later, red scarf and tan coat pulled tight against the wind, sans snowsuit, sans Sheriff Brown, I awaited the multi-story Snoopy floating down Fifth Avenue towards the Mother Ship, Macy’s on 34th Street. Followed by a two-story red sleigh and a realistic Santa with a bright red suit and a million-dollar smile, the parade satisfied. Evidence experiencing the frigid temperatures adds to the festivity came this year when the Pandemic removed the audience along the Macy’s Parade route and forced families to view online. Brought back fond memories, though it wasn’t the same.
Can you go home again?
We’ve all heard the phrase “You can’t go home again.” Main Street today may not be the same place we remembered when we wore snowsuits to attend outdoor Christmas parades as kids. The last time I walked a Main Street in Indiana was June 2003, when my daughter took me to Nick’s, the iconic campus pub in Bloomington. Her present to me: a visit to my college campus after she graduated from arch-rival Purdue, a couple hours away. Like all Main Streets, it changed over the years, but retained the essence of place for me.
When I thought about writing this blog, I ran across Mindy Thompson Fullilove, MD’s, Main Street, How a City’s Heart Connects Us All. Her book offers the thoughts of a social psychiatrist with a heart for personal connection. Seeking this essential element of city geography led her to the Community Research Group at Columbia University and the New York Psychiatric Institute, where she worked for 26 years. To write about Main Street, she spent eleven years visiting the streets of 178 cities in the U.S and 14 foreign cities. She shares what she learned about what makes a city special, how they enrich and bring us together, and how they are now threatened in a myriad of ways. Her academic mission: to discern the contribution of Main Street to our collective mental health. I can only touch upon an example of a gathering place that was important enough for a community to fight to keep it. But the book also offers food for thought for those who love our cities and small towns and want to protect them.
Pandemic threatens Main Street favorites
Even before the Pandemic, the cost of rent has threatened the future of many favorite eating, drinking, listening, and congregating places. Several months ago, a long-time Austin location for musicians to “play out,” Threadgill’s, closed its doors on Lamar Avenue. North of town, maybe too far off 6th Street, Threadgill’s’ location was no longer a determining factor, as every Austin music venue shuttered for a while as Covid-19 ended customers’ cozy proximity to the bar and their favorite musicians.
Dr. Fillilove had her own wake-up call to the change gentrification can make in a community. Her favorite restaurant and bar, the working class Coogan’s at Broadway and 169th Street, opened decades ago not far from the New York Psychiatric Institute, where she worked in a neighborhood that led the city in drug violence. She’s frequented the bar and restaurant since 1990 and remembers her feet crunching the vials of crack cocaine along the sidewalk on her way to work.
Restaurant owner Dave Coogan helped enrich the neighborhood by hosting events to build community with the 5K Blues, Salsa and Shamrock runs and the park event, Hike the Heights, and by hiring and training bartenders, runners, cooks, and waiters from the neighborhood. Coogan’s held the promotion party for Bob Fullilove, when he became the first African American professor in the School of Public Health at Columbia University. His photo joined those of other regulars that lined the walls.
Community saves Coogan’s
On January 10, 2018, three years after the author moved to a faculty position at The New School near 14th Street, she read in the newspaper that Coogan’s was to close. Dr. Fullilove joined 15,000 New Yorkers in signing a petition supporting the restaurant in its battle with landlord New York-Presbyterian Hospital that upped the lease way beyond Dave Coogan’s ability to pay. They had been in negotiations for three years but could not come to a settlement. Friends emailed friends and finally a neighbor tweeted out: “one of the true Washington Heights mainstays, and has embraced every wave of neighborhood changes. I love Coogan’s. My stomach hurts from this news.” Lin-Manual Miranda, Hamilton author and Broadway performer, also sent an SOS to his father, the New York politico. He and New York Congressman Adriano Espaillat met with the CEO of New York-Presbyterian Hospital. They drew up a simple change in the lease that Dave Coogan could accept and he was back in business. He said he always knew the restaurant would be missed, but said, “the love that came out of this community was incredible.”
Weeks after his restaurant slipped the noose, Coogan visited a Hispanic elementary school in the Washington Heights neighborhood for pay back. He asked the students, “How many of you come from a small island surrounded by water? Raise your hands.” He knew most of the students were from Puerto Rico, and he raised his hand too. Coogan explained his family immigrated from Ireland, another island country. “My mother came when she was sixteen,” he told them. (Full disclosure: My grandmothers were second generation Irish immigrants, too.) He said the Puerto Ricans (likely Luis Maranda) saved the Irish and he was grateful.
Not every Main Street restaurant, bar or community gathering place will survive the Pandemic, but we need to back the ones we care about and nurture those who do. That is how it works on American Main Streets. As Dr. Fullilove explains: “Those making, retaining Main Street for us are one of the great centripetal forces holding our universe together.”
Keep posted: There is more to this story as we talk about famous Main Streets around the world. More in the coming weeks.