New York – The Final Frontier…

Year four of the teacher expeditions have come to a close and New York was the icing on the travel-bug cake.  The city that never sleeps most certainly kept me awake for two weeks, my motto, “I can sleep when I’m dead”.  I wanted to experience as much as I possibly could while in New York and I did everything in my power to do just that.  There were honestly times that I thought I might be a zombie, but it was so worth every minute of lost zzzzz’s.

I have contemplated the most memorable experiences in New York and I have come up with two particular experiences that really touched me beyond all others.  The first, was the magnificence and life that is the Brooklyn Bridge.  I have to say that I did enjoy the McCullough book more than any of the others, but I honestly thought that he was a bit dramatic in his description of an object, not a person, but a man-made object.  It wasn’t until I stepped out onto the bridge that first night in Brooklyn that I truly understood what McCullough described.

The Brooklyn  Bridge is truly alive, with a spirit that you can sense as you stroll the boardwalk.  On our tour, we were told that you can actually hear it hum early in the morning when activity is limited, much like a harp.  As I watched the bridge from my hotel room, it reminded me of a major vein or artery, feeding life into Brooklyn and providing Manhattan with the most beautiful skyline imaginable.

The New York Tenement Museum was an invaluable experience for me.  It gave me a frame of reference, space.  For a number of years now I have lectured on the unsanitary and cramped conditions of the tenements, but until this trip to New York, I never fully understood the true meaning of that foul space that so many Americans called “home”.  The tenements today don’t smell of sewage and garbage as they once did, that aspect of the experience is left to the imagination, but nearly everything else about tenement living comes to life in the Tenement Museum, including the ventilation shafts that were once filled with garbage and waste.  The windows of these shafts opened right into the one and only bedroom, where children were born,  families kept warm on cold winter nights, and where everyone probably gagged from the stench on hot summer days.  The Tenement Museum left little for the imagination, including the bugs and for me, it was just what I was looking for, in your face historical reality!

Four summers of memories, snapshots, lessons and lectures, have provided this history teacher with an education that a classroom just cannot provide.  It has been the most influential experience of my life and I cannot express enough my gratitude and appreciation for the opportunities.  Thank you to Matt, Jonathan, and Scott for all of your dedication and hard work that made these expeditions possible.  Your hard work has changed Southern Colorado for the better.  Signing off on this final formal blog post is heartbreaking, but please know that I am a better teacher and now, a true historian.

Thank You My Dear Friends!!!

The Biltmore Estate – Entrepeneurs from the Beginning

Pure Capitalism – it’s what made this most amazing mansion possible in the 1890’s and what makes its existence today a reality.  The Vanderbilt’s keep the amazing 175,000 square foot masterpiece open to the public.  You won’t be visiting all of the rooms, in fact, you will only see a small portion of the spacious and glorious mansion for your $50, but it truly is something to see.  The tour is self-guided and you can rent headphones for an audio tour for an additional charge.  You will begin your tour with the grand entryway and wind your way up to a portion of the sleeping chambers and complete your tour in the basement getting a glance at the multiple kitchens.  The home is spectacular and every room is a reminder of the power of money and in-turn, the power of the Vanderbilt family in the latter half of the 19th century.  Pure capitalism at its finest.

As we were soaking in the sights, my mother became annoyed at the fact that home is not public domain, but instead,  remains the property of the Vanderbilt family.  The revenue from the tours is largely devoted to restoration of the family home and heirlooms.  My mother explained that the Vanderbilt’s were still nothing more than robberbarons to this day.  I reminded her that nobody twisted her arm to visit the elegant domain, and truly, were they “raping” the public, or had they simply hit on genius?  Seriously, think about it, the most expensive house in America to maintain, still has to be maintained, and the heirlooms have to be preserved, so how does a family do this in a world where wealth is not so divided as it was in the 1890’s?  The answer is brilliance, charge people a ridiculous fee to come and visit only a portion of the mansion and then use the funds to meticulously restore and preserve the home, which remains in the name of the Vanderbilt family.  Not only do they enjoy the profits from the ticket sales, but maintain the insurmountable wealth of the family.   Go for it, if people are willing to pay the piper to get a glimpse of “How the Other Half Lives” in reverse,  more power to them.  This being said, the story should not end here.

The home was spectacular, but in  my opinion, the Vanderbilt’s owe America a bit more than a tour.  There was little to no discussion of the history behind the home.  Aside from the fact that George Washington Vanderbilt built the mansion with the wealth earned by Cornelius Vanderbilt, there was no discussion whatsoever about how Cornelius made that fortune.  There was no mention of the disparities between rich and poor.  There was not a word on the industry or industrial workers who made the fortune that built America’s greatest castle.  Why?  Because the history is reality of the downside of such glorious wealth, it is the story of the workers who were slighted so that one family could prosper and indulge beyond words.  The home today is a celebration of that wealth.  Unfortunately, the family is showing as much concern in 2010 for the disgusting violation of workers rights and crude business practices as they did when their family was building their fortune.    Unlike Carnegie and the other “Roberbarons”, Cornelius Vanderbilt was not known for his philanthropy.  Nothing comes without a price and the term “robberbaron” was certainly earned.  Indeed,  cutthroat means of wealth building were a sign of the times during the turn-of-the 19th Century, but they most certainly were not during the turn-of-the 20th Century.  The Vanderbilt’s owe at minimum, acknowledgment of their family’s role and contribution to the labor and social issues that forced children into the factories, and made tenement life a reality for huge populations of mostly immigrant families in America during the late 19th Century and early into the 20th Century.  They have every right to celebrate the home and their fortune, but have the decency to at some point, at least acknowledge that the home would never have existed had it not been for back-breaking labor of the meaner sort.