I have, alas, studied philosophy, / Jurisprudence and medicine too, / And, worst of all, theology / With keen endeavor, through and through— / And here I am, for all my lore, / The wretched fool I was before.
For many years now I have been an avid autodidact. I have, alas, studied philosophy, ancient and modern, analytic and continental. I have read tomes of history and slogged my way through old poems and enormous novels. I have slammed my intellect against textbooks—physics, chemistry, psychology, economics—often to no avail. Theology, biography, books in foreign tongues, collections of essays and classics of science—I have read them all.
And yet, despite all this, a feeling of ignorance, utter and hopeless ignorance, often plagues me. And this feeling is not entirely illusory. After all, there are still huge swaths of knowledge of which I have not the faintest idea. How does a computer work? What about the history of China, Russia, India, Latin America? How do you grow corn or build a house? How do lithium batteries or Wi-Fi work? The world around me is still, in large part, mysterious. And even if I spend my whole life investigating, there simply isn’t enough time to learn it all.
This bothers me. Partially it is a feeling of being inauthentic. How can I be a citizen of a world I don’t understand? How can I act intelligently and make wise choices if so much is beyond my grasp? One need not be omniscient to live authentically, of course; and partial knowledge, being the best we mortals can ever achieve, is what we must work with. Still, it does seem that the more complex the world becomes, as the global economy weaves more and more lives into a tighter knot, the more we must learn in order to achieve even a basic understanding of the ramifications of our lives.
Thoreau felt this, I think, which is what drove him into the woods. At least there, living simply and in relative isolation, he could hope to come to grips with his world. In our post-industrial society, this is simply impossible. Take, for example, the desk that my computer is sitting on. The top is made of wood. Where was the tree cut down, where was the wood cut up, and who did this? What chemical process was used to dye the wood? And the metal legs: What kind of metal is it, where does it come from, how was it put together? Hundreds of people must have had a hand in this simple table, from its beginning as a tree, to the factory, to the truck that transported it, and the shop that finally sold it.
And this is just a table. Multiplied by all the objects in your life, you can get some idea of how enmeshed you are in relationships and technologies that you do not, and cannot, completely understand. I think this feeling of being ignorant of the sources of your own possessions, the fabric of your daily life, is part of what drives me to read.
The table example only touches on the social world. What about questions about the natural world? How does my body work, and why does it have the shape it has? Where did the universe come from and what are its properties? What is the fundamental truth of things? What is the order of reality? Human science has done an astoundingly successful job in tackling these questions. Indeed, it is by far the most successful example of human intellectual efforts. Even so, the world we have discovered is so amazingly complex that no one mind could understand it all. You have to specialize, and study for years, to hope to deeply understand even one part of it. As for the rest, we must settle for simplified versions, popular accounts, sketchy outlines. And even with this recourse, we must still learn continuously if we hope to survey everything.
The vastness of available knowledge, then, is another reason why I read. But there is still a deeper reason. This has to do with what might be called ‘existential’ questions, questions about the meaning and purpose of life. What does it mean to be good? What does it mean for a society to be just? Why are we here, what should we be doing? Questions like these driver seekers into the arms of poets, philosophers, and preachers. These are the questions that have been asked most persistently by our benighted species. We have been hoping to find our place in the universe since the very beginning. And yet, it is these questions that most trenchantly resist final answers.
Seen in this way, the quest for knowledge may seem hopeless. We may end up feeling like Faust, bitter and disappointed, after a lifetime of effort for negligible results. The utter hopelessness of this search is what, I think drives some into religions, where God serves as a universal explanation and justification, for everything and anything. It drove Faust in the opposite direction. Nevertheless, the impossibility of total knowledge or final answers does not mean that we cannot achieve adequate knowledge and workable answers. Our history, our philosophy, literature, and science, has clearly proven otherwise. So instead of being bitter like Faust and selling our soul to some deity or devil, we should embrace the endlessness of the quest. After all, the world would be terribly boring if we could know everything about it.
So long as humans have divided themselves into groups, xenophobia has existed. Like many phobias—such as of spiders, snakes, and heights—fear of foreigners has an evolutionary logic. In a time before laws, city walls, and police, when small migratory bands of hunter-gatherers roamed the world, strangers were an acute threat. Violence within one’s own group could be reduced through interdependence and social pressure; but there was comparatively little to deter violence between groups. As such, it made sense to be fearful of strangers, just as it made sense to fear poisonous critters and deadly falls.
But the human environment changes faster than the human mind can evolve. Our fears are often maladjusted to the modern world. We panic when we see rats, bats, cockroaches, and we feel queasy on tall buildings. Yet how many people have phobias of cars or guns, two far more deadly facets of the modern world? Not many, and that’s the point: our brains are attuned to different threats than now exist. The same logic applies to foreigners. The old fear of strangers, once useful and life-preserving, has in our day of nation-states transformed into useless a fear of foreigners. And as everybody in the United States knows, this fear has recently experienced a resurgence.
Xenophobia is nothing new in America. We were never so accepting of immigrants as our national mythology would have us believe. There have been periods of backlash against many different ethnic groups: Germans, Irish, Chinese, and now immigrants from Latin America and from predominately Muslim countries. That this xenophobia is based on provably irrational fears—rampant crime, “job stealing,” or terrorism—hardly affects the deep-rooted emotional response to foreigners. And whipping up sentiment against outsiders, after all, is the easiest thing in the world, since outsiders have no social bonds to the community.
Yet however deeply rooted the fear is in our psychology, it is not ineradicable. A fear of insects is another of our predisposed phobias, since poisonous insects were daily perils for our ancestors. But when I was in Kenya, constantly exposed to legions of flying, crawling, stinging, biting bugs, I soon lost my fear and felt perfectly at home. I ceased to be afraid once I realized that my fear was irrational: the bugs were safe, so long as I didn’t do anything stupid. Similarly, living in an international city like New York reduces xenophobia through daily contact. An irrational fear quickly dissipates when prolonged experience exposes the fear’s lack of basis in reality.
I do not mean to be overly simplistic. Obviously other factors than our primitive wiring affect xenophobia. In the case of Germany and France, for example, those two states competed for resources and power, leading them into conflict and stirring up hatred. And this hatred, combined with political and language barriers, was—despite living in close proximity—sufficient to motivate the populations of those two countries to kill one another in huge numbers, just for their sake of identity. Obviously, proximity by itself is not enough to overcome xenophobic hatred. Both groups must see each other, not as competitors, but as collaborators, with something positive to contribute to one another.
As Goethe points out, I think that cuisine has played a surprisingly central role in promoting inter-group harmony. It is said that music is an international language, but I think food and alcohol better deserve that title. Ingredients, dishes, delicacies, gourmet products, and culinary techniques have traveled far and wide. When it comes to fear of foreigners, perhaps our stomach bypasses our brains. Even the most virulent American nationalist, I suspect, enjoys the occasional Chinese take-out. Food is universal; and sharing food, breaking bread together, is a universal sign of peace.
In the heady days of Trump’s campaign, one of his supporters, Marco Gutierez, warned that, if the Mexicans weren’t pushed out, there would be “a taco truck on every corner.” Perhaps this is exactly what we need, as attacks on immigrants’ rights increase daily.
In a country famous for its historical ignorance, Howard Zinn sold two million copies of a 700-page history book. In a country famous for its allergy to the left, Howard Zinn wrote a best-seller from a staunchly left-wing perspective. Every evaluation of his book must begin and end with this achievement. Whatever you like or dislike about Zinn, clearly he did something right.
As you set out to judge this book, you must first decide whether it is a work of inquiry or of advocacy. This distinction has worn thin in our postmodern age, as we have become hyper-aware of the inescapability of bias. Nevertheless I think the distinction holds good in theory, however blurred it may be in practice.
An inquirer searches for the truth, even if the truth contradicts her original opinion; an advocate attempts to motivate people, to bring about some action, even if the action is somewhat vague or far-removed. An inquirer will risk dense and dry writing to get her point across; an advocate will risk simplification and generalization to get her point across. An inquirer will highlight information that her thesis doesn’t account for, and will include counterarguments and consider their merits; an advocate will minimize inconvenient information and will knock down strawmen of counterarguments.
This book is clearly a work of advocacy. And it is important to remember this, since as a work of inquiry A People’s History of the United States has almost no merit whatsoever. Zinn mostly relies on secondary sources, and makes no attempt at addressing counterarguments or at accommodating different viewpoints. His aim is not to explain American history, but to use American history to spark outrage.
Granted that this book is advocacy, we must then ask two more questions: whether it is responsible or irresponsible, and whether it is altruistic or selfish. Responsible advocacy uses careful research, seeks out unbiased sources, and acknowledges those sources; irresponsible advocacy uses lies or severe distortion of facts, or simply lies by omission. Altruistic advocacy acts on behalf of a wide swath of people, not just a narrow interest; selfish advocacy does the opposite. As an example of responsible, altruistic advocacy, Rachel Carson’s Silent Springaddresses an issue of broad concern using careful research. On the other hand, the cigarette industry’s fight against the researchers who uncovered the negative health effects of smoking was an example of irresponsible, selfish advocacy, fighting on behalf of a small group using outright lies.
It is worth noting, by the way, that these two values can come into conflict. In these situations the advocate is faced with a choice: What is better, to distort the truth for a worthy cause, or to tell the truth at the expense of that cause? You might say that, if dishonesty is required, the cause can’t be worthy; but the fact remains that careful scholarship is often at odds with popular success—and popular success is what advocates aim for.
I think Zinn faced just this dilemma in this book, forced to choose between a work that would satisfy academics and would sell well, and he chose popularity. Granted, given the constraints of a popular book, I think he is decently honest with his sources. And it is worth noting that Zinn is frank about his political biases and goals. Nevertheless, I think it is obvious that he relies on books—again, mostly secondary sources—that are broadly sympathetic with his views; that he selectively quotes those who aren’t; and that he questions the motivations of any who disagree with him. What we must ask, then, is this: Does Zinn’s moral aim excuse this approach?
I think, on the whole, it does. At the time Zinn first wrote this book, history books used in public schools were unabashedly nationalistic, omitting labor movements, women’s movements, civil rights movements, and pushing aside the atrocities committed against the Native Americans. In other words, the history commonly taught and known was a history of presidents and elections, wars and victories, a history that ignored large swaths of underprivileged people. Of course Zinn didn’t change this single-handedly; he was the beneficiary of an entire academic movement. But his book, by its popularity, played an important role in changing the status quo. By the time I went to school, we had units on women’s movements, labor movements, and the barbarous mistreatment of blacks and Native Americans. It is also largely thanks to Zinn, I believe, that there is a growing movement against the celebration of Columbus Day (a person who I don’t think we ought to celebrate).
It is eminently right that the injustices and oppressions and inequities of American history be laid before the public. For history is never a neutral series of facts. Every political ideology relies on some historical narrative. Thus, systematically omitting episodes of history is equivalent to squelching certain political views. And even though I am not always in agreement with its ideology, I think that the United States suffers from its lack of a strong leftist movement.
Just recently, the political power of history has been dramatically demonstrated through the conflict over Civil War statues. More and more people are coming to the conclusion, I think rightly, that having statues of Confederate generals is not politically neutral. Of course we must learn and commemorate history. But it is impossible to remember and commemorate everything. We are always faced with a choice; and this choice is shot through with ideological questions. What we choose to remember, and how we choose to remember it, is a moral issue; and I think Zinn is right to remind us of the struggles of the unprivileged and powerless against the privileged and powerful—not for their sake, but for ours.
This, in brief, is why I generally approve of this book. But I do have many criticisms.
Most superficially, I think this book suffers from a lack of organization. Many chapters feel like hasty cut-and-paste jobs, jumping from topic to topic, summarizing and quoting from different sources, without anything more than a sense of outrage to tie it together. In this way, the book is bizarrely reminiscent of a a Bill Bryson work: a hodgepodge of stories, thrown together in a loose jumble. I also think that Zinn should have highlighted more individual stories and condensed some tedious lists of movements, if only for dramatic effect.
More seriously, I think that Zinn commits the moral error of many on the left: by holding people to a stringent standard, the important moral differences between groups are minimized. This was most noticeable on his chapters on the Civil War and World War II, in which Zinn goes to lengths to undermine the moral superiority of the North and of the United States. I absolutely agree with Zinn that the North was hardly a utopia of freedom and equality (racism was almost universal), and that the United States was hardly a shinning beacon on a hill (think of the Japanese internment camps, the Dresden bombing, or the nuclear bombings). Nevertheless, I think that, with all their inequities and injustice, the Union and the United States were clearly preferable to the slave-owning Confederate or Nazi Germany. Minimizing this difference is dangerous.
I also object to the way that Zinn makes it seem as though the United States is controlled by a vast conspiracy, or that all the elements of power work together in one seamless ‘system’ (one of Zinn’s favorite words). He does, at one point, acknowledge that this system arose unconsciously, through necessity and in stages, and is not, for the most part, used intentionally by the powerful. But this, then, leads to the question: What is the difference between an unconsciously developed and unintentionally used system of control, and no ‘system’ at all?
Or consider this paragraph:
The American system is the most ingenious system of control in world history. With a country so rich in natural resources, talent, and labor power the system can afford to distribute just enough wealth to just enough people to limit discontent to a troublesome minority. It is a country so powerful, so big, so pleasing to so many of its citizens that it can afford to give freedom of dissent to a small number who are not pleased.
Zinn’s message is clear: that this is an unjust situation created by powerful people. But think about what he is saying: The United States is a country where most people are content and where the discontented are allowed to express themselves. Phrased like this, the observation looses its outraged and semi-conspiratorial edge; indeed it doesn’t seem so bad at all. I cite this only as an example of Zinn’s use of rhetoric and insinuation to make political points, a dishonest habit. Another bad habit is his tendency to question the motivation of the people he intends to criticize. Every reform or government action aimed at equality is, for Zinn, just a concession aimed at promoting the long-term stability of ‘the system.’ Again, this leads to the question: What, in practice, is the difference between a self-interested concession and an honest attempt at reform?
I also want to note that Zinn’s effort to write a “people’s” history became, at times, a thin pretense. This was obvious whenever the general opinion didn’t match his own. Zinn was not simply chronically “the people”; he consistently chooses to focus on those who shared his ideals, whether they represented the majority or a small minority. This was most obvious in the chapter on the Second World War, which focuses on the small group of people who disapproved of it. But it was a tendency throughout. Here is a typical passage:
After the bombing of Iraq began with the bombardment of public opinion, the polls showed overwhelming support for Bush’s action [Bush Sr.], and this continued through six weeks of the war. But was it an accurate reflection of the citizen’s long-term feelings about war? The split vote in the polls just before the war reflected a public still thinking its opinion might have an effect. Once the war was on, and clearly irreversible, in an atmosphere charged with patriotic fervor … it was not surprising that a great majority of the country would declare its support.
This is special pleading at its worst. The people’s opinion, when it disagrees with Zinn’s opinion, is of course not really their opinion; it is just manipulation. But when the people do agree with Zinn, it is of course their “true” opinion.
This, by the way, is another nasty habit of the left: a pretense to knowing the true interests of the unprivileged, even if the unprivileged themselves disagree with the left and among each other. Thus all the differences that divide the unprivileged—racism, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia among the poor—are both excused and then dismissed as being superficial differences that mask a true unity, perhaps even instilled by the powerful to divide the poor. In a way this is a disrespectful view of “the people,” since Zinn apparently thinks that most people are far more easily manipulated than he is himself, and thus should be judged by a more lenient standard than the crafty powerful.
I am heaping a lot of criticism on Zinn; but I do think that, despite all this, Zinn is almost always on the morally right side: for equality, for pacifism, for democracy. And even though, largely thanks to Zinn, many of the episodes he covered in this book have made their way into school curriculums and the national awareness, I still learned a great deal from reading this. Both the Mexican-American War (which, to protest, Thoreau spent a night in jail) and the Spanish-American War (which resulted in prolonged, brutal fighting in the Philippines), two American power-grabs, still receive scant coverage in classrooms. And the long, ignominious history of U.S. intervention throughout the world, propping up dictators and plotting to topple governments, is still not widely known—and it should be.
I think Zinn has already been quite successful in changing people’s perception of history. But is this book inspiring or motivational? On the one hand, Zinn is a powerful writer whose every line carries a sense of justified outrage; and outrage, as Zinn shows, is what motivates many to fight for change. On the other, Zinn portrays movement after movement trying and failing—only about one in ten even partially succeeds, it seems—which can easily create a fatalistic cynicism. I was often reminded of the Onion article: “Humanity Surprised It Still Hasn’t Figured Out Better Alternative to Letting Power-Hungry Assholes Decide Everything.”
It’s a joke, I know, but I do wonder about this. In a way this is the issue raised by—heaven help us—Game of Thrones: Is it really better, morally speaking, to be an idealist like Ned Stark, if that leads to your defeat at the hands of less scrupulous parties? This is one of the oldest questions in politics; and the way you answer it determines, to some extent, where you fall on the political spectrum. Zinn represents one answer, and I think it is one we too often forget in our cynical age.
(I decided to split my original post for ease of navigation. Continued from part one.)
Further north in the Hudson, as the train passes through the marshes at Cold Spring and then hooks along the edge of Hudson Highland Park on its way to Beacon, the passenger will see something striking through the window. Standing on an island in the Hudson, conspicuous and incongruous, is a castle.
Or perhaps I should say a former castle, since it is distinctly a ruin now. Only the outer walls remain, its insides gutted and empty. Ivy climbs up the surface and the green shade of trees can be seen through the empty window frames. Even so, it is an impressive sight, with its battlements and crenellated walls standing proudly over the Hudson, like something out of a fairy tale.
But it is clear, upon reflection, that this structure could never have been an actual castle, despite appearances to the contrary. Putting all tactical considerations aside—castles were obsolete during almost all of our history—its brick walls are thin and high, totally unsuited to defensive architecture. (To see what I mean, visit Castle Clinton in Battery Park, which has thick, squat walls, durable and difficult to hit with canon fire.)
Like many passengers on the train, I idly wondered “What is that?” as we passed, my mind drifting off to remote possibilities. When I asked my mom later, she told me that it was built by a rich American with a European wife, who wanted to make her feel at home in the New World—or at least, that’s the story she heard. I was satisfied with this rumored explanation for a time. But upon my return from Spain, I decided to dig a little deeper into the castle’s history. And, as so often happens, the truth is far more interesting than the myths.
Unless you have a boat and don’t mind being penalized for trespassing, the way to visit the castle is on a tour with the Bannerman Castle Trust. These tours depart from either Newburgh or Beacon, two historic towns that are themselves worth visiting. You can choose to go by ferry or kayak. (In a recent homicide case, which made national headlines, a woman was convicted for criminally negligent homicide when she left her fiancé to die in the Hudson after his kayak capsized near Bannerman Island. I took the ferry.)
Our tour left at two in the afternoon. About forty people lined up at the water, and then crossed a wobbly dock to board the ferry. As I said, the tours are given by Bannerman Castle Trust, the same organization that is responsible for the castle’s preservation. They are a genial and jovial bunch who obviously enjoy what they do.
The boat began its short journey to the island. To our left we could see the Newburgh-Beacon bridge, a surprisingly pretty cantilevered steel construction. It was a sunny day and the river was full of boats. Jet skis and cigarette boats zoomed past, making a terrible racket, and kayakers waded in the shallows. Along the way, we passed two antique vessels, a Mississippi paddle wheeler and a sail sloop, and all the passengers waved to each other—people are generally friendlier at sea, I suppose. (The sloop was the Clearwater, the boat built as part of Pete Seeger’s campaign to clean the Hudson.)
The castle seemed to rise out of the sea as we neared. By its juxtaposition, the Hudson Valley was transformed into an alpine lake or a Scottish loch in my eyes. We docked and shuffled out, and the tour guides split us into two groups. Thus commenced an excellent two-hour tour, which explained a history that was far more interesting than I dared hope.
Though commonly known as Bannerman Island, its true name is Pollepel Island. ‘Pollepel’ is one of those place-names that baffle explanation. Our guide told us that his preferred hypothesis was that the island was named after the Dutch word for a wooden spoon, which was also the name for the contraption that deposited misbehaving sailors on the island as punishment. There is also a legend about a girl named Polly Pell, who was stranded on the island and rescued by a brave lad, who she then married—a story which, like all tales of romance, our guide assured us is baseless and false.
In any case, the really interesting history of the island begins in 1900, when it was purchased by Francis Bannerman VI (1851 – 1918).
Bannerman has one of those appealing, Andrew Carnegie, rags-to-riches stories from the nineteenth century. Like Carnegie, Bannerman came to the United States from Scotland, a poor boy in a poor family. After a series of odd jobs, his father ended up in the scrap industry. Then, when the Civil War broke out, Bannerman’s father went to fight for the Union side, forcing the younger Bannerman to quit school and work for the family business. At night, he made extra money by traveling around the New York harbor in a little rowboat, using a hook to dredge up chains and rope that ships had sloughed off into the water, in order to sell them for scrap.
Later, the younger Bannerman started his own scrap company. He found a profitable—and at the time entirely novel—avenue for business in selling old military equipment. You see, after a war is concluded, all sorts of goods—rifles, swords, bayonets, canons, black powder, uniforms, and even canned foods—can be purchased very cheaply. Then, when another war breaks out, it can be sold at lower prices than new equipment, while still making a nice profit. Bannerman didn’t only sell to bellicose governments, however, but became a leading supplier to collectors, bands, vaudeville acts, rodeos, movie producers, circuses, and theater groups. Bannerman’s illustrated catalogue are still regarded as the gold standard by collectors of antique war equipment.
After doing business in several different locations in Brooklyn, Bannerman opened his main shop in Manhattan, at 501 Broadway. But the city government very sensibly decided that it was unsafe to have so much military equipment, including several tons of explosives, in the middle of a major city; so they made him move it out. This is why Bannerman purchased Pollepel island for his armory—it is isolated and therefore safe. The location had another advantage. Since the island is in full view of the train, and since the Hudson, at that time, was crawling with merchant ships, Pollepel was an excellent place to advertise his business from. Hundreds of potential customers would be passing by each day. This is also why Bannerman invested in such ornate architecture. A castle is certainly more eye-catching than a billboard.
Bannerman died in 1918, of “overwork,” as the New York Timesobituary said, using one of those euphemisms of the previous era. At the time, he was donating large amounts of equipment to the Allies fighting the First World War. His business model became seriously compromised a few years earlier, when a change in the laws imposed stricter regulations on the trading of explosives—which is good news for the rest of us.
If Bannerman had lived two years more, he would have seen the wisdom of the New York City government in banishing him to the island. For in 1920, one of the powder houses blew up. It was a massive explosion, reportedly breaking windows for miles in all directions—or so said our guide—and blowing a chunk of the wall hundreds of feet across the Hudson onto the train tracks, blocking the train for hours. Bannerman’s wife, Helen, narrowly avoided death (the hammock she had been laying on was hit by flying debris, but she had just gone inside), and her eardrums were ruptured by the shockwave.
Under the direction of Bannerman’s sons, the business carried on for a time, until eventually, in 1967, the island was purchased by the State of New York for parkland. Despite the family’s attempts to sell off their massive store of supplies, there was still much left, some of which was taken by the Smithsonian Museum. The island was opened to the public the next year. But then the next phase of damage to the island occurred. In 1969, the buildings caught fire in a colossal blaze, perhaps an act of arson, destroying everything except the outer brick and concrete walls. After that the island was off limits to the public, for the sensible reason that the remaining structures were unstable and could collapse.
Many years later, in 1993, the Bannerman Castle Trust was founded, which worked with the State of New York to preserve and promote the castle. They have made great strides. Kayak tours, hard-hat tours, and finally, in 2003, walking tours were introduced. The dock where the ferry lands and the stairway that leads up to the island were built under their direction, as was a bridge connecting the two highest peaks of the island (which cadets in West Point helped to construct). They also organize volunteer teams of gardeners, who have created some really splendid gardens on the island. And this is not to mention the historical work.
Thankfully, nobody was hurt when, in 2009, a big section of the outer walls collapsed. To prevent further damage, the walls are held up by long metal braces. Still, it’s worth asking how much longer the structure will last without substantial repairs.
Despite the explosion, the fire, and the collapse—and partially because of them—the castle is magnificent. For me it was a dreamlike experience to be standing near it, since I have been fantasizing about visiting this island since I first laid eyes on the ruin. The façade of the building has many charming architectural ornaments, such as the semispherical balls that run along the top. A resourceful man, Bannerman used vintage bayonets to reinforce the concrete.
The castle isn’t the only structure on the island. On the second highest point—Bannerman was afraid of lightning strikes, so he didn’t build on the highest—is the house in which he and his family stayed. This building was only very recently rehabilitated; only a few years ago, it was covered in ivy. The house is built in the same vein as the castle, a fanciful exterior concealing a homey interior. Now it is a sort of mini-museum, full of old images and informational panels.
In the water surrounding the island, there are still further remnants of Bannerman’s business. During the island’s heyday, Bannerman constructed an artificial harbor, or breakwater, around the island. Now only a few stone towers remain, peaking out of the water. Doubtless more are submerged just under the waves, a hazard for passing boats.
The Bannermans only stayed on the island during summers. But a superintendent, Leonard Owen, stayed all year long; and his daughter, Eleanor, grew up on the island, commuting to school by sled during winter. Two of the historians of the island, Barbara and Wesley Gottlock, recently turned her memoirs into a children’s book. (These two authors also collaborated on the Images of America book on the island, which I relied on for this post.) Bannerman’s daughter, Jane, is still alive and active in the Trust.
Well that’s the story, or at least the quick version. When I began learning about these ruins, I had no idea that they would contain so much history. Perhaps I should stop being so surprised that the world, once examined, is a tremendously interesting place. Ruins are not just food for the imagination. Every ruin, even the humblest, is the product of human hands, and bears the traces of humans dreams and disappointments.
(I have broken up my original post into two separate posts, for ease of navigation. You can find part two here.)
The train ride on the Hudson Line, from Manhattan to Poughkeepsie, must be one of the most scenic in the United States. The ride has both natural and artificial beauties along the way. The Hudson Valley itself is magnificent, with the palisades across the shimmering waters; and this is doubly true in autumn, when the trees turn their fiery hues. Occasionally you pass a sail boat or a freight barge in the river, or a team of rowers diligently practicing in the Bronx. The train also takes you under the High Bridge, the new Tappan Zee Bridge, and the Bear Mountain Bridge, three engineering feats. A careful rider can even catch a glimpse of Sunnyside, Washington Irving’s old home. (Irving was very annoyed when they built the railroad right next to his house.)
Among all this, the most striking landmarks along the way are, for me, the ruins. Specifically, two ruins: the Yonkers Power Plant and Bannerman Castle.
Ruins have a power to fascinate that is difficult to account for logically. They are the same structures that exist, in unruined form, all over the place. The difference between a ruin and a proper structure, architecturally speaking, is pure defect: the ruins have lost their integrity and utility. And yet ruins have been captivating the artistic imagination since at least the Romantic era. Their battered and broken forms have provided inspiration for Shelley’s poems, Byron’s travel sketches, and Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings. It was the ruins of Rome that shaped the Renaissance in Italy, and those same ruins that inspired Edward Gibbon to memorialize Rome’s decline and fall.
What is it about ruins that is so compelling? There are many answers. One is that ruins allow us to visualize time. We see how time’s tooth rusts metal, cracks foundations, and crumbles stone. We see what rots away and what petrifies in place. Ruins also allow us catch a glimpse of a world without humans, the world we would leave behind if we all mysteriously disappeared. We can see the natural world slowly reclaiming buildings and walls, as plants and animals invade the empty space. Perhaps we feel what Shelley felt when contemplating the fate of Ozymandias: that humanity’s urge for immortality is futile and vain, since everything eventually decays.
For all of these reasons, and still others, ruins have an undeniable power—as attested by the many photographers, amateur and professional, who go out of their way to document them. This is my little contribution.
The Yonkers Power Plant
The Hudson Valley has been many things since its water began to carve a channel through the earth: wilderness, scenic escape, suburbia.
One hundred years ago, the valley was an artery of industrialization, dotted with factories and warehouses, noisy with barges and freight trains. The Hudson Valley was also one of the great centers of brick production, its soil baked and sold far and wide, which is why so many of its old buildings are brick. But we are long past the industrial age, and these buildings no longer house factories or store goods. Nowadays they house fine restaurants, cafés, or even libraries, such as the Irvington Public Library, which is in the old Lord and Burnham factory building.
The most impressive of these old factory buildings is still in use: the Domino Sugar Refinery, in Yonkers. Originally built in 1893, this refinery still produces three million pounds of sugar per day. It is one of Domino’s three major refineries, the last major sugar refinery in the Northeast, and a major source of employment within Yonkers. With an old, hulking brick building standing aside newer metal conveyer belts, this refinery is the sister of the more famous one in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which closed in 2004 and was mostly demolished in 2014, except for some buildings given landmark status.
But the grandest ruin of the industrial age sits a few miles north. This is the Yonkers Power Plant, which stands on the river side of the local Glenwood train station. With its smokestacks scolding the sky hundreds of feet in the air, the plant is hard to miss. I often saw it on my commute to the city and wondered, what is it doing here? Why was there such a massive building rotting, empty and neglected, by the side of the tracks?
The answer comes down to power. When the trains began running in the 1840s—connecting faraway places and disturbing Washington Irving’s peace—they were running on steam. By the early 1900s, the railroad was prepared to switch to electricity, using the newly designed third rail. The problem was that, at the time, the municipal electrical grid was not powerful or dependable enough to supply the power. Thus the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad, which owned the Hudson Line back then, built their own power plants. The Yonkers Power Plant was situated along the river for several reasons: to be close to the tracks, to take advantage of the water to cool the machinery, and to make it easy to supply the plant with coal, which was delivered by ship.
The power plant was built by the architectural firm, Reed and Stem, who also collaborated on Grand Central Station. (Charles A. Reed was related by marriage to the president of the New York Central railroad, which doubtless helped him get commissions.) The plant opened in 1907, and ran on coal, which was brought by barge to the boiler room below. The steam generated by the boiler was used to power several massive turbines on the floor above. This power, generated in alternating current, was changed into direct current for the trains by rotary converters. (These rotary converters, by the way, are the only heavy machinery still in the factory; the rest was sold for scrap metal.)
By the 1930, it no longer made financial sense for the railroads to be in the power business, so in 1936 the plant was sold to Edison Light and Electric (a subsidiary of Con Edison) and converted to run on oil. This was not a long term solution either, since the plant’s relatively small size (relative to more modern power plants, that is) made it inadequate to New York’s massive power needs. So in 1963, the plant was closed. It was eventually sold to a private owner, who mostly let nature and teenagers have their way. The plant acquired the name “Gates of Hell,” for supposedly being the place where gangs held ritual inductions. Over the years, it became overgrown and covered in graffiti (some of it quite good). Meanwhile, proposals to transform the plant into apartments did not pan out.
(By the way, I am mainly relying on the excellent website, Hudson Valley Ruins, for this information. Their page on the power plant also has many great pictures.)
Most recently, the power plant was purchased by an entrepreneur named Lela Goren, who announced a plan to convert the plant into an arts exhibition center. The building will be renovated in two phases, which will cost $150 million all together, and finished sometime in the next decade. Work began in 2013. The grounds have already been substantially cleared of rubbish and debris, and the walls are being stabilized. I am pleased to learn, from this NY Times article, that Goren plans on keeping much of the industrial aesthetic, even the graffiti.
On a sunny summer afternoon I visited the plant for myself. I stepped off the train at Glenwood Station and craned my neck upward at the redbrick wreck. Despite the work the Goren Group had already done, the place is still visibly a ruin. All the windows are smashed; ivy climbs up iron beams; and an eerie silence pervades the building.
Glenwood is a local station, and few people use it. Aside from the old plant, Glenwood’s main attraction is the Hudson River Museum, which focuses on the river’s ecology. That day, I was the only person standing on the platform. A fence surrounds the old plant, covered in “Do Not Enter” and “No Trespassing” signs, assuring the prospective intruder that video cameras are surveilling the property. Even so, standing there alone on the platform, with nobody else in sight, it was difficult to resist climbing into the ruin. I would not even have had to climb the fence, since a stepladder was helpfully leaned up against it. The ruin still has its visitors.
But I’m no daredevil, so I contented myself with patrolling its perimeter. Yet through the gaping windows I could glimpse the cavernous interior space, which many have compared to a cathedral nave. Indeed, compared with a gothic cathedral, the power plant is an exceedingly light, airy structure, with thin walls and plentiful windows. The towering brick façade, combined with the thin steel girders of the building’s innards, make it seem as if an elephant body is being suspended from chicken bones.
The plant consists of two buildings, the main plant and a substation next door. The substation is where the rotary converters transformed the current from alternating to direct, so the trains could use it; from there the current was sent to the rail tracks. An attractive metal footbridge connects the two buildings. Outside, a metal tower still stands, rusted and overgrown, which I believe used to hold the wires. On the southern side of the station there’s a little park. From here you can see how the station juts out into the Hudson. This must have been to enable the use of the Hudson’s water in the boilers; and, indeed, the boiler room still floods during high tide, I believe.
I can see why Lela Goren saw potential in the plant, since its location is as attractive as the building itself. Across the river you have an excellent view of the Hudson Palisades. Looking northwards, you can see the Hudson Valley all the way up to the Tappan Zee. Looking south, Manhattan comes into view, a silhouette behind the George Washington Bridge.
From this vantage point, with the city in the distance, the river ferrying boats along its glimmering waves, it is difficult to believe that this wonderful brick building was made to simply to supply electricity to trains. It was truly a different time. At its peak, the Yonkers Power Plant could generation 30,000 kilowatts, or 30 megawatts. To put this in perspective, the Indian Point Nuclear Plant in Croton, the Robert Moses Power Dam in Niagara Falls, and the Ravenswood Generating Station in Queens can all generate over 2,000 megawatts. We have come a long way. But unfortunately for us, not one of those is even one-tenth as beautiful as the Yonkers Power Station.
Advocacy is tricky. When you’re trying to motivate people to take action, you need to decide whether to appeal to the head, to the heart, to some combination of the two, or perhaps to some more delicate faculty. Upton Sinclair miscalculated when he wrote The Jungle, aiming for the heart but instead hitting the stomach; and as a result, the book was interpreted as an exposé of the meat industry rather than a plea for the working poor. Aldo Leopold, in A Sand County Almanac, eschews appeals to expediency, and instead focuses on the spiritual joys of wild nature; but his book didn’t result in any legislation. Rachel Carson seems to have found the right formula: an urgent and multifaceted appeal to self-interest.
Silent Spring is often grouped along with Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which came out just the year before, in 1961. The comparison is apt, for both books were written by academic outsiders, by women working independently in male-dominated fields, and both books created a sensation. In subject matter, too, the books are surprisingly close. Jacobs describes how top-down city planning, which doesn’t take into account the needs of city-dwellers or the complex economies of cities, only causes ruination. Carson describes how indiscriminate use of pesticides destroys ecosystems and fails even to permanently kill the pests. Both books, in other words, criticize a practice taken for granted, a practice that attempted to mold the world using brute force while remaining ignorant of the systems it attempted to shape.
Even today, Carson’s book retains its moral urgency and its morbid fascination. Not only is Carson a knowledgeable scientist, but she is quite a gifted author. She knows how to drive home her point using vivid—and often frightening—examples, detailing case after case of poisonings, in animals and humans. And she supplements her examples with scientific explanations, showing us how poisons spread through the environment, are absorbed into the body, and disrupt natural processes. She knew that the chemical industry was going to fight her tooth and nail, so she did not leave any stones unturned in her research. She systematically goes through the effects of pesticides on soil, water, birds, and plants, offering case after case in support of her thesis. Now that we take it for granted that pesticides shouldn’t be applied with such wholesale zeal, this can actually be a little tedious. When advocacy is effective, it renders itself obsolete.
But Carson does not make the mistake of focusing only on the environment. She emphasizes again and again how pesticides can enter foods, can combine in the body, can kill livestock and desolate fish, can enter the skin through commercial lawn products—in other words, she emphasizes that this problem is not abstract and distant, but is one that closely affects the reader. It is this focus that makes the book so effective: she appeals to the stomach, the heart, the head, and also to Aldo Leopold’s spiritual values—but most of all, she appeals to self-interest, the strongest motivator of all.