Colonias

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.


dftmpMEMAOGMMtkkkkkkk--------
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.

Cactus

On August 14, 2014 · 3 Comments

The previous article about Spanish punctuation embedded in various place names in the United States made my mind wander to the desert southwest, which led me down a mental tangent related to cacti for some unknown reason. As I daydreamed, I considered, perhaps I should examine places named cactus. There weren’t many, and even the larger ones seemed rather obscure and perhaps even a tad unusual just as we like it here on Twelve Mile Circle.

Cactus, Texas



How many towns had their own signature song? Large cities often attracted musical attention although the level of interest generally waned proportionally farther down the population tally. Yet, Waylon Jennings recorded "Cactus Texas" in 1996. Why Cactus? Maybe for the same reason the name attracted me; I thought of tumbleweeds and dust. Only an overlooked community on an arid plain could ever do justice to the Cactus name. Feel free to turn the music on in the background as I take a look around town.

The Handbook of Texas from the Texas State Historical Association included an entry on this particular Cactus (map).

It began as a company town to produce ammunition for World War II. The Cactus Ordnance Works, one of the largest plants in the county, was established there as a government project by the Chemical Construction Company in May 1942… the cactus and other prickly plants were cleared, and huge dormitories were hastily erected to house construction workers.

Cactus fared worse after the war although various companies continued to produce a range of chemicals at the old ordnance works until the early 1980’s. The population shrank to a few hundred people for a time although it rebounded to about 3,200 residents — larger than ever — by the 2010 Census.


Cactus Springs, Nevada


The Temple of Goddess Spirituality Dedicated to Sekhmet
The Temple of Goddess Spirituality Dedicated to Sekhmet by Chris M Morris, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license

Cactus Springs (map) could be considered just another isolated settlement in an otherwise empty desert except for The Temple of Goddess Spirituality Dedicated to Sekhmet. It sprang from the creativity of a single individual, Genevieve Vaughn,

Highway 95 runs down the middle of the flat Mojave Desert valley in Nevada. Driving east from Beatty, the tiny oasis of Cactus Springs is the first inhabitable spot for sixty miles. It was at this site in 1993 that I dedicated a temple to the Goddess Sekhmet. I feel blessed to be able to give a gift to a goddess who for centuries has not had temples built in her honor.

The full account can be found at Herstory of Sekhmet Temple in Nevada.


Cactus Flat, South Dakota


Giant prairie dog, Ranch Store Gift Shop, Badlands, SD
Giant prairie dog, Ranch Store Gift Shop, Badlands, SD by Brian Butko, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license

Cactus Flat, spelled F-L-A-T according to the Geographic Names Information System, although frequently rendered in its plural form, clung to the edge of South Dakota’s Badlands. Places that survived out there often sustained themselves by finding a gimmick to attract tourists heading into the nearby park in the hallowed tradition of Wall Drug. Cactus Flat had its own scaled-down Wall Drug knock-off, The Ranch Store of the Badlands.

The feature event at The Ranch Store is the same as it was fifty years ago – a large prairie dog colony to the north of the store, where one can walk among the dogs and toss them a snack of unsalted peanuts. Standing fortress to the entire colony is, of course, the six-ton Prairie Dog.

Thus a giant prairie dog (map) came to define diminutive Cactus Flat.


Cactus Beach, South Australia



Cacti may be native to the Americas(¹) although an inconvenient geography couldn’t prevent the name from appearing in unexpected corners elsewhere. I found Cactus Beach (map) in South Australia. It was reputed to be one of the best surfing destinations available.

Cactus itself was actually called Point Sinclair and was given its current name by the first guys who drove up there, looking for surf. Well, when they first saw it, the surf was pretty poor and someone said, ‘this place is cactus!’ meaning no good and boy, how wrong they were, as Cactus is now regarded as one of the best breaks in Oz!

I’m almost afraid to mention Cactus Beach and let people know it exists. A recent news report said,

The waves at Cactus Beach were only discovered in the 1960s, but it has been a prickly issue ever since. Some locals have been trying to keep the secret to themselves. Directions are difficult to find, with signs pointing to the beach being scrubbed off and the more recently torn down.

So don’t go there to surf. Just note the succulents and move on.


(¹) Cacti are native to the Americas with the exception of a single species, Rhipsalis baccifera, more commonly called the Mistletoe Cactus. That’s your trivia for the day.

Geography

Presidential Distances

On July 8, 2014 · 2 Comments

Twelve Mile Circle talked about birthplaces and death locations of the Presidents of the United States. Now let’s finish this off with a comparison of distances between those two points. This involved a rather simple process of dropping the lat/long coordinates for each president into a great circle distance calculator and recording the results. Then I plotted the distances between birth and death onto a chart.


Distance between Birth and Death of US Presidents

Don’t get too hung up on the lack of presidential names. Readers can always cross reference the numbers to each administration on the shared spreadsheet if curious. Also, don’t be concerned that it’s not scaled to time, either. Administrations lasted from a single month (William Henry Harrison) to just north of twelve years (Franklin Roosevelt). The more important point was to confirm in graphical form that distances between birthplaces and death locations increased quite remarkably for latter administrations. This wasn’t entirely unexpected as it tracked nicely with growth and settlement patterns in the United States.


Shortest


LBJ's Birthplace
LBJ's Birthplace by Jim Bowen, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license

Four presidents came to this earth and shuffled off this mortal coil at spots less than two miles (3.2 kilometres) apart. It didn’t surprise me to see this happen for some of the earliest presidents. Travel was more problematic and the landed gentry tended to stick close to their ancestral estates for multiple generations. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Martin Van Buren all passed away within extreme proximity to their birthplaces.

The shortest distance, less than a single mile, caught me off-guard completely. Lyndon Johnson? He didn’t serve until the middle of the 20th Century, and died in 1973. By no means did it seem logical for Johnson to be lumped into the same category as presidents born during the colonial era. And yet, not only was he there, he led the pack.

Johnson was an anomaly of course and a throwback to an earlier time. Paraphrasing from the Handbook of Texas, Lyndon Johnson’s grandfather, Samuel Ealy Johnson Sr., built a home near Stonewall, Texas in the 1880’s. Lyndon’s father, Samuel Ealy Johnson Jr., occupied the home in 1907 and Lyndon was born there in 1908. The adjacent ranch was purchased by a relative of the Johnson family. Lyndon purchased that 438 acre ranch in 1951.

Johnson united the properties. Then, as the National Park Service explained,

Lyndon Johnson took great pride in his heritage and his roots here in the Hill Country of Texas. In order to share that heritage with interested visitors, President Johnson hired architect J. Roy White of Austin, Texas in 1964 to reconstruct the birthplace home. President Johnson and Roy White relied on old photographs of the original birthplace house as well as family members’ memories to guide the project.

Thus, Johnson consciously and explicitly chose to move near his extended family and then later in life he focused on preserving his legacy.


Median


President William McKinely Birthplace
President William McKinley Birthplace by Jimmy Emerson, DVM, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license

I used median rather than average because outliers threw the average way off. The median distance from birthplace to death location equated to about 130 miles (210 km), while the average came in closer to 430 miles (690 km). Three presidents scored very close to the median; Woodrow Wilson, Millard Fillmore, and William McKinley.


Longest



Ronald Reagan Estate, Bel Air, California

Then there were presidents who found themselves a long way from their birthplaces — more than 1,500 miles (2,400 km) — when they passed away, some unexpectedly and some at a ripe old age. John Kennedy and Warren Harding both died in office. Kennedy and Nixon died in hospitals. The vast majority of the 12MC audience would already be familiar with Kennedy’s story so I won’t dwell on it other than to mention that I visited the Grassy Knoll in 2008. Warren Harding died in the Presidential Suite of the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, probably from a stroke or congestive heart failure. His wife’s refusal to allow an autopsy led to conspiracy theories the continued to persist even through the present.

I guess I have to use Ronald Reagan’s estate to illustrate this section since he was the only member of the 1,500 mile club who died at home.

The president who died farthest from his birthplace was Richard Nixon. He was born in Yorba Linda, California and died in New York City, a great circle distance of 2,436 miles.

Purpose
12 Mile Circle:
An Appreciation of Unusual Places
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