Monday, April 14, 2014

A Plea for My Downtown

The Uphill Battles and Rewards of Saving Your Town 

This is what I want: A downtown with businesses, activity, and people.  Altoona in 1953.

On the evening of Wednesday 9, 2014 I attended a presentation by Fourth Economy Consulting at my local city council chambers in Altoona, PA.  This firm has had great success in revitalizing numerous downtowns that have fallen upon hard times--especially here in the former Rust Belt.  My city needs this.  I am not ashamed of this sad truth.  In fact, I embrace it.  That is the only manner in which the situation may improve.  With the growing dominance of higher education and the healthcare industry in my community, both Fourth Economy and I suspect there is vast potential to revitalize historical structures rather than tearing them down (which has been the unfortunate pattern in my city for decades).  I went to the meeting to proclaim my support for their initiative.  Below are my comments plus an accompanying article from our local Altoona Mirror on the issue.  I share this tale because I sense the story of my downtown may also be the story of your downtown.  Cities grow from within, not from outer sprawl.  There is still hope.  In the end, we must demand vision on the part of our local elected leaders--even visions involving expensive but needed investments.  In the meantime, a little bit of historical literacy and appreciation might be the antidote to a problem endemic in many of our towns.  Share the wealth.


"On behalf of the Blair County Historical Society and myself, I would like to announce our enthusiastic support of the Housing Strategy & Downtown Investment Plan we heard this evening. From both commercial and historical preservation standpoints, this proposal is a remedy long overdue in resuscitating the sustainability of our once-vibrant downtown.
Those well-versed in the study of the past often comment about history that those who don’t recognize it are always bound to repeat it. Sadly enough, one only needs to look down 11th Avenue of our city to notice just how true that maxim is. We have seen the same tragic pattern repeated time and time again throughout the last forty years of Altoona’s history: Historical structures and other icons of local identity have been ravaged by the wrecking ball in the name of “progress.” Other properties have been purchased by regional investors but have been left to decay in the wake of neglect and ambivalence. In the interim, the heart and pride of our community has decayed with it, resulting in a rise in urban blight, unsightly sprawl, and an exodus of native young people from our city.

As a professional historian, I can appreciate the merits in revitalizing and repurposing historic structures for cultural purposes alone. However, I can also acknowledge that such preservation does not exist in a vacuum.  Economic and commercial advancements must coincide with this undertaking.  In this regard, adaptive reuse of our vintage buildings and districts is an ideal solution. Speaking with young professionals and students on a daily basis, I know they too have a strong desire to see a downtown renaissance. Student housing in the city is urgently needed to accommodate the influx of the growing campus. Where student housing goes, businesses will follow.  Therefore, efforts aimed at our downtown have great potential in our desires of broader community revitalization.

In making these momentous decisions, I ask you to recognize the patterns of our local history.  I beg you to observe the truth that demolition has not equated to growth or progress in our city.  New does not necessarily mean better.  With this thought in mind, I respectfully ask you to look to the city’s past to build its future. Help preserve our culture as well as our economic vitality. To ensure this, we as citizens require the vision, foresight, initiative, and leadership of individuals such as yourselves.  As you contemplate your options for the future, I hope you will consider your place in the future history books of Altoona.  What will your legacy be?  Thank you for your time and consideration on this matter."

This is what I do not want: Over fifty years later, my city is a shell of its former self.  I want my history to stay and be appreciated.  Only local citizens can make it happen by voicing their aspirations.  Photo by Scott Conarroe.

Consultants bet on full house
Group: 500 young professionals would pay up to $1K to live downtown
April 10, 2014
By William Kibler (, The Altoona Mirror

After seven months studying the feasibility of reviving downtown through creation of market housing, mainly through rehabilitation of older buildings, a group of consultants from Pittsburgh presented their findings Wednesday to City Council.

"Awesome presentation," Councilman Eric Cagle said of the Act 47-funded study, who nevertheless wondered whether the 500 mostly young professionals the consultants predicted would pay up to about $1,000 per month to live downtown would find enough there to do for entertainment.  A similar plan worked in Pittsburgh, and the amenities followed -- after years of failure when the amenities came first, said Steve McKnight of Fourth Economy Consulting, one of the firms in the consultant team.

"All the elements are there," McKnight said, arguing that existing amenities, including one high-end restaurant, bus service and cultural facilities like the Railroaders Memorial Museum and the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art, would suffice to start, he said. "The only thing missing is the housing component."

But there's a funding gap of a third or a half of the project costs that a combination of the city, other agencies, banks, and lawmakers will need to work together to fill, according to McKnight and the other consultants, who were from Pfaffman & Associates and Fourth River Development.  Ultimately, it will be up to property owners, the consultants said.

Fortunately, there are models for them, including Legacy Suites in Lakemont, which is successful, and the Artificial Limb and Appliance building and the Casanave building downtown, which are in development, the consultants said.  Based on surveys, the consultants predicted a market for 500 units a year and proposed projects that could develop 218 units in the easily foreseeable future.

Those include rehabilitations of Brett Central Court, the Penn Central building, the Vipond building, the Gables building and new construction projects with traditional style housing in the UPMC Altoona and Little Italy neighborhoods.  There was talk of the need for up to three new parking garages and of possible demand for a downtown hotel.
"We focused on the next generation," McKnight said.

Urban living appeals to many of them, he said.  "We're trying to jump start a market," McKnight said. "Then let the private sector take over."  Council needs to offer leadership and moral support, to lobby lawmakers for capital help, be willing to apply for grants and loans in support of projects and do what it can to provide infrastructure, according to Pfaffman and Miller.

Councilman Bruce Kelley wondered whether the low cost of mortgages in the area could be an obstacle to people paying the market rents.  The surveys identified a different group than those who would go for those inexpensive mortgages, McKnight said.
The owners who are willing to make the next move may do so after finding out how the ones doing it now made it work, said John Watson of Fourth River.  "Get a success story, document it and move on," Pfaffman said.
Jared Frederick of the Blair County Historical Society praised the city and the consultants for the report, which can reverse an unfortunate legacy, he said. "Demolition has not equated to growth," he told council.  "Look to the community's past to rebuild for the future," Frederick said. "Consider your place in the future history books of Altoona."
Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Civil War: The Untold Story

The Overshadowed Conflict

A scene from Civil War: The Untold Story - Confederates retreat from the Battle of Jonesboro.
"The world seemed bursting into fragments. Cannon and musket, shell and bullet, lent their several intensities to the distracting uproar. . . . I likened the cannon, with their deep bass, to the roaring of a great heard of lions; the ripping, cracking musketry, to the incessant yapping of terriers; the windy whisk of shells, and zipping minie bullets, to the swoop of eagles, and the buzz of angry wasps."  So wrote twenty-one year-old Henry Stanley nearly a decade before he uttered the famous words, "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?"  A member of the 6th Arkansas, Stanley was a reluctant rebel yet witnessed immeasurable horror near the banks of Pittsburg Landing in April 1862.  Shiloh was the bloodiest battle in American History until that point.  The clash claimed one of the Confederacy's most trusted commanders and set his opponent on the long term path toward fame and the presidency.

At the same time, this is not the battle or region that is swept into our collective consciousness when we consider the American Civil War.  The distant battles of Henry Stanley and Ambrose Bierce are seemingly far removed from the popular memory of our defining moment as a nation.  Granted, two-thirds of their generation's conflict was waged in Virginia--the capital and "breadbasket" of the Confederacy.  However, the war was also lost and won at landmarks not as celebrated or visited as Gettysburg or Antietam.  The confrontations at Shiloh, Vicksburg, Chickamauga, and Franklin have not been glorified in film or art.  Yet, as a whole, they carried as much weight as any fight waged by Robert E. Lee or George Meade.  A new public television documentary miniseries entitled Civil War: The Untold Story seeks to unravel the eclipsed series of events that defined a region and a nation.  (Watch some preview clips here.)

Federals hold during the Battle of Shiloh.
Producer/director Chris Wheeler was gracious enough to send me a preview copy of his forthcoming film debuting this week on various PBS stations throughout the country.  Being in closer proximity to well-known battlefields of the eastern theater, I was both eager and curious to see his interpretation of the 1860s.  I was not disappointed.  Focusing on the Civil War between the geographic scope of the Appalachians and the Mississippi River, Wheeler's vision of the conflict goes where few films have gone before.  Engagingly accurate in both its visuals and scripting, the documentary aptly utilizes authentically-clad reenactors (unlike the 2011 History Channel film Gettysburg).  Meanwhile, Downtown Abbey's Elizabeth McGovern helms the production's narration with gravitas and sincerity.

Beyond all the fine, aesthetic production values, the film's greatest merit is it's main theme: going beyond the traditional story of the war.  As Wheeler noted in an interview, "We want to tell the story that goes beyond military and civil war buffs.  It's been a generation since Ken Burns' Civil War. People need to hear this story again."  In this objective, too, the film succeeds.  Both realistic and brutal in its depictions of combat, the director's choreography equals most big budget Hollywood renditions.  Simultaneously, the documentary appropriately strikes an even balance between the military and social dimensions of the war in the west.  Less than three minutes into episode one, the implications of American slavery are brought to the forefront of the situation, revealing the "peculiar institutions" firm grip on American society.  This strain of narrative remains present throughout the entirety of the film, demonstrating the complexities of race and freedom within the context of the total war.  

Noted scholars such as Peter Carmichael, Eric Jacobson, and Steven Woodworth offer additional insight in conjunction with dramatic commentary and cinematography.  The combined affect offers a dynamic and relevant analysis that will surely keep your attention.  In what is the best series on the conflict since Civil War Combat, Civil War: The Untold Story serves as a solid platform for discussion and exploration of our crossroads moment.  Visit here to see when and where the documentary is playing in your area.  Enjoy!

Confederates dig in at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The "Wild Bill" Yonder

Legacies of William Guarnere and his "Band of Brothers"

With less than six months of life left in him, "Wild Bill" Guarnere still sought to reach out to history buffs who craved to hear his story and shake his hand.  Here he can be seen with WWII reenactor Andrew Collins at Eisenhower National Historic Site in September 2013.
Like so many others, I was saddened to hear of the passing of Sergeant "Will Bill" Guarnere, a well-known figure of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment who was hurled into the pantheon of military fame thanks to the book and miniseries Band of Brothers.  Having met Guarnere on a number of occasions at various commemorations, one could not but be impressed with the man.  His former commander, the late Major Dick Winters, complimentary recognized the man as a genuine killer whose blood lust could hardly be quenched.  Losing a leg outside the Belgium town of Foy determined not Guarnere's downfall but his personal strength that defined his lifestyle.  In his later years, he conveyed the story of he and his comrades with wit, truthfulness, and a Philly tough guy charisma that was bar none.  In reflecting upon his colorful life, I could account for his deeds and adventures with a typical obituary filled with historical narrative.  However, I decided to wait several days after his passing to ponder his possible place in the historical memory of the Second World War.  The wait yielded surprising results.

In examining historical film in the classroom, I often encourage students to consider how movies shape our perceptions of who and what is important to our national story.  Popular films tend to skew our views in this regard.  While all members of the "Band of Brothers" deserve our admiration, the famous and dramatic nature of their saga tends to overshadow the exploits of other units and individuals involved in the Allied effort.  Nobody is to blame for this pattern.  It is merely the nature of the Hollywood beast.  That said, a seeming majority of surviving Easy Company men actively celebrated their exploits with the public via books, documentaries, and an increased number of interviews.  Dick Winters, Bill Guarnere, "Babe" Heffron, Don Malarkey, and Buck Compton penned wildly successful memoirs as spinoffs of their newly found fame.  Winters and others such as "Shifty" Powers and Forrest Guth additionally allowed for "authorized biographies" to relay their exploits.  Forewords and promotional blurbs by WWII buff and miniseries producer Tom Hanks certainly helped.  The vets endorsed and traveled on sanctioned "Band of Brothers" international tours.  Guarnere and Heffron signed thousands of books and pieces of WWII memorabilia at airshows and reenactments.  They made history lively and personal.  They rightfully reveled in their fame.  And who can blame them?  No veteran wants to be forgotten.

An end result is an excellent chronicling of an individual unit that participated in some of the most momentous events of the 20th century.  It's story is a compelling one that has inspired untold citizens to read up or even join the military in the wake of 9/11.  (The first episode of HBO's Band of Brothers aired two day prior to the terror attacks.  In the ensuing weeks, its airings served as a patriotic, unifying force--drawing indirect and unintended parallels between the sacrifices of past and present.)  Its pop-cultural status transfixed itself in our historical memory of the Second World War.  However, could this historical and cinematic selectivity come at a cost to the broader story of that conflict?

As is the case with films such as Gettysburg, The Patriot, and Flags of Our Fathers, historical events interpreted through film offer prioritized perceptions of importance.  Naturally, this focal point is a necessary device for the narrative form.  Yet the power of historical omission--especially in movies--plays a crucial role in determining the history that we do and do not know.  As discussed in a previous post, such complexities of remembrance and historical ownership are forces not to be easily dismissed.  The true stories of Civil War general Joshua Chamberlain and Dick Winters are bound to be more resonant to an average American than the tales of Colonel David Ireland or Walter Ehlers.  Even though the actions of the latter gentlemen are respectively similar in nature and time to the deeds of the former officers, their stories are relatively unknown because they lacked Hollywood depictions.

"Band of Brothers" veterans never seemed to miss an opportunity to interact with the public or relate their story.  On June 6, 2011, "Wild Bill" appeared with "Babe" Heffron and actors from Band of Brothers at a Lancaster Barnstormers baseball game in tribute to their recently fallen leader, Dick Winters.  They received an enthusiastic standing ovation from the packed stadium.  (Courtesy of Tim Gray and the WWII Foundation.)
Arising from the Band of Brothers mythos, Bill Guarnere became the central figure and storyteller of the 506th PIR--especially after the passing of Dick Winters in 2011.  Few people ever possess such capacity or historical power in their lifetimes.  Most of us will not live lives worth being written of let alone having the ability to author our own historical legacies to eager audiences and readers.  These men respectfully and generously offered us their stories.  We listened intently and gratefully.  In the due course of this commemorative process, the men of Easy Company (likely unknowingly) cemented their place within the most celebrated sanctums of the American military tradition.

The processes of historical memory and ritual are ones that emerge frequently in my classroom discussions.  In talking about how Civil War veterans (often inaccurately) remembered their war, I pressed my students to consider that the same could be true of World War II veterans today.  One student inquired upon the possibility that famous WWII vets could add or reconfigure elements of their experiences to conform to the stories of comrades or feed the public's historical appetite.  These are dilemmas that we as historians must not discount when examining the historical record.  Human memory, after all, is fallible and constantly altering.

Frank John Hughes as Bill.
Sadly enough, Sergeant Guarnere passed away a mere two days after our engaging discourse on the role of veterans in history-shaping.  At the same time, the news coverage of his passing too illustrates the evocative power of his story within the Band of Brothers legend.  Within two days of his death, over 14,000 news articles about him appeared on Google News.  Reports of his demise were actually "Trending" on Facebook--being shared by thousands of users who were collectively (and digitally) mourning.  The posthumous Facebook page created by his family can only suggest their own perseverance to build upon his existing reputation.  If it were not for an immensely popular book and miniseries, we can speculate that there would not be as much attention on this individual, regardless of his heroics.  Some 1,000 veterans of that war pass everyday, and very few of them are honored by such an outpouring of public grief.  Simultaneously, one can estimate that tears for Guarnere are actually tears for his entire generation, who are all to quickly leaving us.  Through book and film, "Wild Bill" became one of the emblematic figures of the GI in WWII.  

Just this morning, the History Department on my campus participated in an open house for incoming freshman in the Fall 2014 semester.  We were pleased that several of them approached our booth declaring their interest in our major.  "Very good!  What is your main area of interest?" I inquired.  "World War II" was the reply from most of them.  I have little doubt that "Will Bill" and his men played a least a small role in generating that level of captivation.  I suspect their historical endowment of interest will be paying off for a long time to come.  And that is far from a negative repercussion.  History constantly presents opportunities in unique and unforeseen ways.

A majority of contemporary WWII reenactors seemingly choose paratrooper impressions, undoubtedly due to the overwhelming influence of Band of Brothers on World War II History.  It's what the people want to see.