Monday, April 17, 2006

Three days that shook my world.

John Reed, the early 20th-century American leftist, activist and journalist immortalized by Warren Beatty in the epic 1981 film “Reds,” grew up at the corner of Park Place and Lewis & Clark Circle, just below Washington Park, about two blocks up the hill from the Portland, Oregon bed and breakfast chosen by Mrs. Confidential to house us while visiting the city.

My last direct encounter with Reed came in 1989. The author of “Ten Days That Shook the World,” a contemporary account of the Bolshevik revolution, died in the newborn Soviet Union and was interred in the Kremlin Wall, where I glimpsed his name while exiting Lenin’s Mausoleum after a cursory glance at the embalmed corpse of the USSR’s founder.

Neither Reed’s boyhood home (razed for an apartment complex), nor the Russian Communist experiment is left standing.

However, relics of another Russian venture still exist in Northern California, and Graham and I visited them prior to entering Oregon a few days back.

Fort Ross marks the spot where the Russian Empire, lured by the potential wealth of seal pelts and fisheries, established a colony in the 1820’s. The physical location of the stockade overlooking the Pacific is stunning, but the foray only lasted two or so decades before the steady financial drain convinced the Tsar to cut his losses, pack up his Aleut fishermen and hunters, and return to home base in Alaska.

Unsurprisingly, the then-legitimate Mexican government in California regarded the newly arrived Russians as illegal immigrants to the area north of San Francisco.

Since the Europeans did not come to Fort Ross in sufficient numbers to assist in picking the vegetables necessary to maintain the price point of the 99-cent value menu at Mexican fast food outlets of the period, nothing was done about the unwelcome presence – and the Russians returned of their own accord to the land of serf-harvested borscht and bliny.

Two hundred yards from the site of John Reed’s house, the city of Portland and various local individual and corporate donors have built a Holocaust memorial that is one of the most unique and moving I’ve yet seen.

Of course, nothing can approach the damningly visceral impact of visiting the actual sites of the death camps in Eastern Europe – something I’ve done before and prefer not to do again.

The Portland Holocaust memorial recreates a minimalist European city square, complete with cobblestones, benches and a street lamp; it is seemingly innocuous at first view, until you see items scattered randomly on the ground.

They’re sculptures: A shoe, shattered eyeglasses, a violin, a torn teddy bear, a twisted Menorah and ripped pages of a book.

During Claude Lanzmann’s documentary “Shoah,” an oral history of the Holocaust filmed during the 1970’s, aging Polish peasants are shown recounting with unapologetic indifference the disappearance (and slaughter) of fellow Jewish townsmen, leaving the viewer with the impression that it wasn’t so much ideology or religion, but simple envy and spite, that accounted for the willingness of devout Christians to watch with approval as others perceived to be better off materially were removed and murdered.

As the memorial reminds us, the objective in life must be to find and reinforce the qualities that all people share, rather than to exploit those that divide us to suit the preferences of those capable only of hatred.

Verily, Portland is going to be a very tough act to follow. It is a green city, one that continues to nurture an economy based on creativity and education, with quality of life issues at the forefront of planning, a visionary public transportation system, and a shared determination to keep its urban core strong even if it means putting the brakes to the excess of the exurb.

New Albany’s Siamese Councilman and their Gang of Four cohorts simply never have seen anything like it … and that’s one reason why they have so amazingly little of genuine coherence to say about the future of our city.

Next stop: Seattle.

(Photo credit)


jon faith said...

The post was an interesting segue through the dustbin, an example of a walking tour that can afford lessons of the effectiveness of small groups of zealots, err, committed people.

edward parish said...

Visted Ft. Ross 9/13/01. Quite the peaceful spot and well worth the stop and wander of the grounds and buildings. Most Americans have no idea that Russians inhabited the shores of this country.