On the Steps

On March 1, 2015 · 5 Comments

I sat there cycling through television channels aimlessly the other day like I do when I’m bored. I came across a famous a scene from one of the Rocky movies where the hero Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) started running up the steps in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (map). You know the scene I’m talking about.

Philadelphia Museum of Arts (Rocky steps)
Philadelphia Museum of Arts (Rocky steps) by Alonso Javier Torres, on Flickr (cc)

He’s climbing the steps triumphantly to a soundtrack of "Gonna Fly Now" and you know someone’s about to get a pounding. I didn’t stick around long enough to figure out which movie it was — apparently Stallone recreated the scene in just about every Rocky movie — although it did get me thinking. Movie locations aside(¹), were there any genuine historical events that happened on steps or stairs?

On the Steps of the Lincoln Memorial

The occurrence that came to mind immediately was the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s iconic "I Have a Dream" speech given on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial (map) in 1963. The site selected by Dr. King was highly symbolic, as it was the 100th anniversary year of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation that trumpeted freedom for slaves living within Confederate states then in rebellion. He drew obvious parallels between the Lincoln of old and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, recognizing Lincoln’s achievements while signaling the struggle continued.

Those same steps featured prominently in another Civil Rights milestone a generation earlier when Marian Anderson sang from that spot in 1939. She’d already earned fame as a classical vocalist, a contralto. She performed on those steps because she’d been denied a performance hall in the city.

Marian Anderson was an international superstar in the 1930s—a singer possessed of what Arturo Toscanini called "a voice such as one hears once in a hundred years." But if race had been no impediment to her career abroad, there were still places in the United States where a black woman was simply not welcome, no matter how famous. What surprised Anderson and many other Americans was to discover in 1939 that one such place was a venue called Constitution Hall, owned and operated by the Daughters of the American Revolution in the capital of a nation "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

The DAR refused to relent in spite of withering criticism. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the organization, writing "You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way and it seems to me that your organization failed."

Fifty thousand people showed up to hear Marian Anderson perform on the Lincoln Memorial steps; many times more than would have heard her at the indoor venue. The Daughters of the American Revolution deeply regretted it actions later and invited Marian Anderson to perform at Constitution Hall several times beginning in 1943.

On the Steps of Aztec Temples

Templo mayor ruins, in the middle of Zocalo
Templo mayor ruins by Antoine Hubert, on Flickr (cc)

Many Mesoamerican societies practiced human sacrifice in the centuries preceding European contact. The Aztec of central México took the practice to an entirely new level. There were many varieties of ritual and sacrifice although it was human sacrifices particularly that attracted the most attention of armchair historians. Bloodletting reached its pinnacle at Templo Mayor, the Great Temple at Tenochtitlan, now in modern day Mexico City (map).

At the climax of the ceremony, prisoners of war were taken to the top of the steep steps of the pyramid leading to two shrines. Held down, the victims’ abdomens were sliced open by high priests wielding ceremonial knives, and their hearts – still beating – were raised to the spirits above and the crowd in the sacred precinct below. The lifeless bodies of those sacrificed were then kicked down the stairs, and as one followed another, these flowed with blood, bright red against the white of the temple walls. Over the four days of the opening ceremony, some 4,000 prisoners were killed to satisfy the Aztec gods.

That was hardly the only time in history where violence happened on stairways.

On the Steps of the Theatre of Pompey

Largo di Torre Argentina
Largo di Torre Argentina by Rodney, on Flickr (cc)

The Roman leader Julius Caesar met his demise on a set of steps at the Theatre of Pompey in Rome in 44 BCE, now at the Largo di Torre Argentina (map).

Caesar attempted to get away, but, blinded by blood, he tripped and fell; the men continued stabbing him as he lay defenseless on the lower steps of the portico. According to Eutropius, around 60 or more men participated in the assassination. Caesar was stabbed 23 times.

This was considered a triggering event. Afterwards the Roman Republic (with consuls elected by citizens) that had lasted for five hundred years transitioned into the Roman Empire (led by emperors).

Other noteworthy events

  • On the steps of the U.S. Capitol Building (map): Congressman William Taulbee was shot to death in 1890; and Congressman John Jenrette and his wife Rita consummated an adult relationship in the early 1980’s (although she now denies it), a sideshow to his bribery convictions.(²)
  • On the steps of the Versace Mansion in Miami Beach(map): A serial killer murdered famed fashion designer Gianni Versace on the steps of his South Beach mansion in 1997.
  • On the steps of the Avon Theater in Stratford, Ontario (map): Last prize goes to a set of stairs in Canada where Justin Bieber often sat busking for tips before he became famous.

I could probably find some more examples although that Justin Bieber thing discouraged me. I can hardly wait for all of the Bieber-related Google Ads that will now start popping onto my screen for the next month.

(¹) Otherwise I’d nominate the Exorcist Steps in Georgetown, Washington, DC (Street View).
(²) Inspiring the name of a local comedy troupe, The Capitol Steps.


On December 10, 2014 · 0 Comments

I pondered Zip Lines recently. Actually I’d been researching postal ZIP Codes and wondering how I’d missed the 50th Birthday of the system in 2013. Then I noticed an auto-suggestion for Zip Lines and it zipped me straight down a protracted tangent metaphorically speaking. I decided to find the longest Zip Line in the world, a feat more difficult than I anticipated. I turned to several sources including Zip Line Rider.

That’s when I learned a dark secret. Companies that provided these services were marketeers as much as entertainers. They wanted to find creative ways to attract riders to their often remote, sometimes nearly inaccessible locations. There were plenty of financial incentives to exaggerate their achievements. Who was going to be able to pull out a tape measure and test their claims? These competitors also seemed to be locked in a protracted arms race to construct the longest ride. One company would grab the title only to have another eclipse its achievement a few months later, except the original group that previously held the crown would continue to claim it anyway. I did uncover what I believed were some of the longer Zip Lines on the planet bearing in mind the caveat of inflated superlatives. Actual results, and of course future results, will vary.

ZipRider®, Parque De Aventura, Copper Canyon, México

The longest Zip Line uncovered during my investigation pointed towards Parque De Aventura within Barrancas del Cobre (Copper Canyon) in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. It was operated by ZipRider®, a company with locations in several parts of the world. The total length claimed at Copper Canyon extended to 2,515 metres (8,350 feet). Most people arrive at Parque De Aventura by train using the Ferrocarril Chihuahua al Pacífico, better known as the Chepe for its abbreviation CHP. The "El Divisadero" station (map) unloaded passengers directly on the canyon rim at Parque De Aventura.

Copper Canyon would be an amazing place to visit even on its own and it did attract a lot of tourists who were not there for Zip Lining. The canyon was larger than Arizona’s Grand Canyon, and even deeper in places.

Flying in the Sky; Rocca Massima, Italy

Originally I though Italy’s Flying in the Sky facility might have been the longest Zip Line available until I came across Copper Canyon, so let’s call it the longest in Europe instead (at least for today). It was nearly as long at an impressive 2,213 m (7,260 ft). However it was considerably faster with a top speed of 140 kph (87 mph) vs. 105 kph (65 mph). This was probably because Flying in the Sky harnessed people vertically rather than in a sitting position. Riders screamed down the slope of Monte S. Angelo near the community of Rocca Massima (map), southeast of Rome.

The Italian websites didn’t translate well. From what I could gather, several local citizens and entrepreneurs banded together to find a way to attract visitors, especially younger ones, to come to their rural enclave. A Zip Line seemed to be a natural fit.

The Eye of the Jaguar; Urubamba Valley, Perú

Easy come, easy go. The Eye of the Jaguar in Perú was once the consensus longest Zip Line (map). However while impressive at 2,130 m (6,990 ft), it continued to tumble down the list as new facilities opened in other parts of the world. Maybe it’s safe to call it the longest Zip Line in South America. It flies across the Urubamba Valley (Sacred Valley). There would be many reasons to visit the area in addition to simply seeking thrills. This was where the ancient Inca Empire held its firmest control. Their capital city Cusco was located nearby as was the renowned Machu Picchu.

ZipRider®, Icy Strait Point, Alaska, USA

The longest ride I found in the United States was another facility operated by ZipRider®. This one was located at Icy Strait Point, Alaska, just outside of Hoonah. It was an obscure spot on Chichagof Island about fifty miles from Juneau (map). That would seem to be an odd choice for a playground until one considered its placement along the Inside Passage, a popular route for summertime cruise ships. That was their prime audience, too. Their website noted that the facility opened only on days when ships landed at Hoonah. Those not booking admission through a cruise line would be accommodated only on a space-available basis, at the back of the line behind all of the cruise ship passengers.

This was another sit-down line. Perhaps that was why Icy Strait, while an imposing 1,675 m (5,495 ft) in length had a top speed of "only" 105 kph (65 mph). On the other hand, it featured six side-by-side lines so an entire family of cruisers could experience the thrills all at the same time.

Flying Fox; Taihape, New Zealand

I gave an honorable mention to Flying Fox Zipline at Mokai Gravity Canyon (map), in New Zealand. It wasn’t the longest by any stretch, reaching only 1,200 m (3,939 ft). However it was the fastest example that I found. It hit top speeds reputed to be around 160 kph (100 mph)! When one considers that terminal velocity for a human — the top speed of a person in a free fall — was something like 200 kmh (120 mph), the speed of Flying Fox seemed astounding. I can’t imagine Zip Lines getting much faster although I’m willing to bet someone will try.


On November 16, 2014 · 1 Comments

I failed to mention a specific Milwaukee example in the recent I Before E Like in Milwaukie. That was intentional. I noticed a rather unusual reference included within the Geographic Names Information System that deserved further observation. It featured two adjoining neighborhoods that had the dubious distinction of sharing a name with a rather unpleasant beer that I’ve done my best to avoid since my college days.

Old Milwaukee East and West, Laredo, Texas

I was sure the names were coincidental, that Old Milwaukee East Colonia and Old Milwaukee West Colonia borrowed from the road of the same name that each of them flanked. The situation was unlike, say, the Old Milwaukee Lane in Winston-Salem, North Carolina (where Rexam Beverage Can Americas runs a factory). I’m sure the Laredo reference happened by chance. Someone from Wisconsin probably lived near the border in decades past and the name stuck.

What was a Colonia, though? The literal Spanish translation meant colony, although it could also represent community, neighborhood or settlement more generally. However it had a very specific context in the southern United States borderlands. The Texas Secretary of State defined it as, "a residential area along the Texas-Mexico border that may lack some of the most basic living necessities, such as potable water and sewer systems, electricity, paved roads, and safe and sanitary housing." The source provided additional statistics.

Colonias can be found in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California, but Texas has both the largest number of colonias and the largest colonia population. Approximately 400,000 Texans live in colonias. Overall, the colonia population is predominately Hispanic; 64.4 percent of all colonia residents and 85 percent of those residents under 18 were born in the United States. There are more than 2,294 Texas colonias, located primarily along the state’s 1,248 mile border with Mexico.

The Attorney General of Texas provided a handy interactive map.

Colonias of El Paso Texas
Colonias Near El Paso, Texas, USA
via Attorney General of Texas Interactive Map of Colonia Communities

Colonias were developed in a predominantly predatory manner beginning in the mid-20th Century. People with little income needed places to live and speculators sold them undesirable scrub lands with little to no zoning or infrastructure at bargain prices. Purchasers often couldn’t obtain ordinary loans from banks because of their unreliable incomes so plots were sold to them in "contract for deed," arrangements, i.e., rent-to-own. People wouldn’t own the land until they paid every monthly installment to the speculator.

Residents didn’t generally build their homes all at one time either, so they built as they could when they had enough money to afford it. Maybe the foundation one year, then the framing and the roof, then later walls and interior work, all over a period of several years while living on the site the entire time. Structures were ramshackled in various stages of completion, perhaps with plumbing or electricity or not, or maybe eventually. It was an arrangement that seemed to work in an unusual sense. Speculators made tidy sums on rent-to-own arrangements; residents got a place they could call their own that they could improve over time, and generally free of pesky building regulations and government oversight. None of that erased the grinding poverty of many residents though, or the lack of basic necessities within numerous Colonias.

The interactive map contained color coding as defined by the state. The worst was red, and "Lack access to potable water, adequate wastewater disposal or are un-platted — greatest public health risk."

Cameron Park Texas Home
Cameron Park, Texas, USA
via Google Street View, May 2011

Cameron Park near Brownsville, Texas was held up as a negative example of a Colonia with problems identified by multiple sources. It sat along a lovely stretch of Spoil Banks Ditch. According to the United States Census Bureau, Cameron Park had a Hispanic/Latino population of 99.3%, a median household income of $24,851 per year, and a distressing 52.8% of residents living below the poverty line. Wikipedia claimed, "Cameron Park is the poorest community of its size or larger in the United States, and is among the 100 poorest places in the United States." Yet, Cameron Park was listed as yellow on the interactive map, leading one to wonder how much worse the conditions might have been in the ones listed as red.

Modular Bathrooms by U.S. Department of Agriculture, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Significant academic, media and government attention have been focused on the issues of Colonias in recent years. Texas A&M University founded a Colonias Program to study issues and develop solutions. Major publications including the New York Times and CNN featured both problems and potential. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development created several programs, as did other Federal agencies such as the US Department of Agriculture plus individual states along the border. The Flickr image showed modular bathrooms built by the USDA’s Rural Development agency for a Colonia in southern Arizona on land of the Tohono O’odham Nation (it’s an issue for all disadvantaged people along the border). The Tohono O’odham Nation, some readers may recall, last appeared on 12MC in Overheard in México.

Fortunately the situation of Colonias has been improving slowly in recent years although there is still a long way to go.

Colonia, New Jersey

Colonia, New Jersey, USA

The community of Colonia, New Jersey appeared to be completely unrelated, just an instance of an unfortunate coincidental name.

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