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Places of My Life Update

My newest start may be in October

What are your October plans and goals? This is the question my friend Paula, who was the first blogger I knew IRL, posed in this post.  She started that post by recapping her September.  I know other bloggers, and just a bunch of other people in general, have expressed a view that many people seem to share – that Autumn feels like a beginning.

I know, because of who I am (a Jewish mother), that the school year and the Jewish calendar year both start in the fall.  So, maybe I’m also in the camp that thinks of this season, of pumpkins and other plenty, as the start of the year, or at least as the start of something!  This fall, I am finally, I think, near the end of the very long and painful and draining and difficult journey to where I can really think about and plan and look forward to starting over again with some hope and relief and relaxation and optimism for the future.

I am currently “feathering my (new) nest” as I am starting to furnish my apartment so it’s a convenient place for me to live.  The convenience I’m talking about here is having space and place to unpack and really see what I think I will use of the stuff I brought here with me. So far, those “keepers” seem to have been just right for that purpose. 

From a glance at my calendar over the last half of 2022, I can see, again in this fall season (and even as far back as late summer), that a more fulfilling and busy time has started for me.  One thing I know for sure is that everything I’ve had to deal with, all the tumult over at least the last 5 years and probably all the other upheavals over the last 10, seem not to have changed what I desire in my life for the rest of it! 

I want to learn more about a whole lot of esoteric and intellectual subjects from people who have spent a lot of time with them.  Philosophy, politics, religion, history, generally areas of study where we look back to help us move forward – mainly as a society but also as individuals. I just finished OLLI classes on Putin’s Russia, the history of Iran and its relations with the U.S, the philosophy of Einstein and other big thinkers and a philosophical view of the Manhattan Project.  I found it hearteningly coincidental that key figures in the latter two just happened to be scientists (like many of the most interesting people I met in Oak Ridge). In the upcoming weeks I will be learning about banned books, stories behind hit songs (mainly from my youth or even before then) and the Flint, Michigan, Sit-down Strike of 1936-37.  Fascinating stuff!

I have also pursued some more down-to-earth learning opportunities.  Many of these have come to me through the local senior center.  I learned more than I probably wanted to know, being a processed-food addicted baby boomer, from the recovering-from-cancer-and-Jewish nutritionist who taught the class.  An added bonus were the $10 produce vouchers we got to spend at the small local farmer’s market.  I was surprised that the instructor, who eats more fresh food than I do, had never tried an Asian melon. She appreciated the sight and taste of the melon I bought at the farmer’s market while I appreciated her suggestions for alternate ways to enjoy bananas.   Most of those alternative bananas are available at Trader Joe’s.  I do not frequent TJ’s nor did I frequent farmer’s markets before this class. I am now working through way too many – but delicious – locally grown apples and pears and radishes and snack size peppers from my last market visit. Too bad their celery and TJ’s processed and vacuum sealed bananas were so disappointing!

The last farmer’s market for the year is in October, but I have already moved on to aspects of my spirit I have wanted to develop for as long as my nest has been empty (of my kids).  My daughters may or may not consider what I finally produce someday from my writing and genealogy passions and pursuits, though I’d like to think they will, and maybe even get some benefit from this work I am looking forward to finally get to.  Even if they don’t, I know I want to do this for my own benefit and relief and expression. Just this last week I went to presentations by two authors where I was able to ask them questions about their process, mainly about how they find their projects and are able to get them done. This already helped to me to target a few subjects out of all of those that have been floating around in my mind for quite a long time. 

I took some stabs at a few of them in my so-old-they-are-now-shamefully-hidden blog posts and in the few vignettes I wrote for the 3 or 4 or 5 memoir writing classes I took in which I mainly only wrote notes of what the teacher said. I even signed up for a Hay House FREE 4-Day Book Writing Challenge that starts online tomorrow, and I have already taken a dive into the Aspiring Author’s Tool Kit (5 Free Resources to Kick-Start Your Writing) that came with it and discovered, to my surprise and delight, they support what I learned from the author sessions I attended last week.  I’m hoping to have a similar experience tomorrow night when I attend for the first time a meeting of the writers’ group that is sponsored by the local library.

I spent a day last week with a new friend I met online through some other websites. Laurie also has a personal blog and a business page promoting a writing group she used to run, and she has been generous with her time and gas as my personal guide around Grand Rapids. As I learned more about Laurie’s writing and the technique she teaches, she recommended It’s Never Too Late to Begin Again: Discovering Creativity and Meaning at Midlife and Beyond (Artist’s Way) as a good reference for starting a memoir as what I consider myself to be – just your average baby boomer who is now past the midpoint of an infamous (as in not famous or profound) life.  I read The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path To Higher Creativity in yet another writing class quite a while ago and was impressed enough to keep it on my shelf for future reference.

The next step I will take in “feathering my nest” this month will support the genealogy work I have jumped a little further into since my move.  Next week, when I get some labor to assist, I will be picking up some bookshelves.  Even if I don’t keep them for my next move, or if they end up not fitting with additional furniture I will buy for my new place, they are desperately needed to facilitate organization of the earlier mentioned important stuff I moved with me.  These must haves of course include a lot of books.  They also include a lot of photo albums and loose photos and other papers and memorabilia from my past and from family members’ pasts, known to me or not.

I joined the Kalamazoo Valley Genealogical Society over the summer.  They held the first meeting of their year at the end of September.  I attended that one remotely as well as the first in a series of Skills Sessions they are offering.  I already view the latter as a good way to kickstart and streamline (i.e. finally move on and at the same time narrow) what I want to do with all this stuff. I expect to be at the October meeting in person, again at the local library, when the manager of its Creation Station, will, I hope, demonstrate how to digitize some of my older family photos AND old home movies.

Finally, even before I moved into my apartment, while I was still living in my daughter’s basement, I signed up for the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (IAJGS) 2022 Conference. The whole thing was done virtually and the presentations I registered for can still be seen through the end of October.  I’ve done several already and expect to get through them all at least once by then.  I know my family’s roots in America were only planted, even at their earliest, in late 19th century New York, and I’ve already learned “sources and methods” (a currently en vogue term thanks to Trump’s ignorance of the rules for maintaining some degree of classified information security) to help me search for the European origins of those roots as well as where they may have spread after being planted.

I will also be spending a few days this month in Nashville with my sister who will take me to Vanderbilt Orthopaedics for a consultation to see if, how, when, where and by whom my left hip will be replaced.

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Places of My Life

Why do I want to live in a city that has a full time Historic Preservation Coordinator?

More of what I did that made me happy when I lived in the place where I was happiest.

I can’t remember where I picked up for the first time a strange small booklet that laid out a quite confusing driving tour of Oak Ridge.  Turned out one of the reasons it was so confusing is that the topography of the area (valleys separated by hills) conformed to the purpose of its design to keep all the different development areas separated and secret from each other. These factors also kept all the housing areas separated even though they all required similar facilities to maintain the functions of daily and family life. 

The city ended up with five downtown areas, most of which are now rundown and for the most part sadly closed down except of course schools and churches! The driving tour booklet was so outdated that it included some of those closed places which added to my confusion so I worked with the ORCVB president and other members to get it updated, modernized and republished which finally happened just before I left!

My first visit to the Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge (CMOR) also came just before I left town.  That visit was timed to the official opening of the Oak Ridge headquarters of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park in that building when the museum also offered free admission. I hadn’t visited earlier since I didn’t have any young children to take there so I was quite surprised to discover many of its permanent exhibits also educated adults on Oak Ridge history. CMOR’s website page on “The Manhattan Project” summarizes a good part of what I saw there in my first short visit.

Oak Ridge was built as a planned community, with dormitories, apartments and prefabricated houses, and featured amenities such as restaurants, a library, churches, medical facilities, and clubs and organizations of all kinds. Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge’s “Difficult Decisions” and “Manhattan Project” exhibits house many artifacts from the period and help tell the story of Oak Ridge.

The most fascinating parts of CMOR for me were (1) the very extensive exhibit of area Girl Scouts with some of the troops that started when the city did still very active (2) another Ed Westcott gallery and (3) a re-creation of a room of one of the “Alphabet Houses” to show kids today how small houses used to be! I was so proud that Girl Scouts had been established and retained more importance there than Boy Scouts!

I joined several book groups and a couple of them both read and discussed The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan.  Among the “girls” the author met while doing her research in Oak Ridge was Virginia Coleman Spivey.  Virginia came to town in WWII as a scientist, as did Lianne Russell.  I met both of these highly educated and motivated and liberated for their times ladies in a memoir writing class.  Unfortunately, both passed before they could put pen to paper. 

There were already a range of articles written about Lianne and her achievements.  I had to pry shy Virginia’s story out of her so I could summarize it for a series of articles in the local paper.  Later, I wrote another article about another liberated for her times woman I knew, who happened to be the leader of one of those book groups!  The last article I did was to tout an upcoming ORHPA speaker, another woman who also happened to be the Program Manager at the Center for Historic Preservation at Middle Tennessee State University.  Learned as she was, Lydia Simpson shared the irrational fear that Oak Ridge was radioactive but still agreed to come to town for a tour.  As I’d expected, throughout our afternoon with Ray Smith, Lydia’s appreciation for all the aspects of what had gone on in town increased exponentially.

Links to the articles I wrote that were published can be found here. Scroll through the dates and you’ll find the ones I wrote: 6/8-7/26/17; 10/25/17; 1/10 & 1/17/18.

I’m also not sure where and when I first learned about the “Alphabet Houses” but, given the diversity of the people who lived in town, I was most intrigued by the development philosophy employed by its military governors in directing its layout by a civilian design company

The town site was in the northeast corner of the reservation, a strip less than one mile wide and six miles long with hilly terrain descending from the Black Oak Ridge in the north. Architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) envisioned pleasant neighborhood communities with libraries, schools and shopping centers.  Rather than performing time-consuming grading, houses were adjusted to fit the contours of the land. Most of Oak Ridge’s kitchens faced the street to minimize the length of plumbing and utility lines.

Original plans called for the military reservation to house approximately 13,000 people in prefabricated housing, trailers, and wood dormitories. Town planners were originally to provide housing for an estimated 30,000 people. By the time the Manhattan (Project) headquarters were moved from Washington, DC to Tennessee in the summer of 1943, estimates for the town of Oak Ridge had been revised upward to 45,000 people. By 1945, the population had reached 75,000 and by the end of the war, Oak Ridge was the fifth largest city in Tennessee.

Materials were in short supply, so the first houses were built of prefabricated panels of cement and asbestos or cemesto board. They were known as “alphabet houses” because each of the handful of home designs was assigned a letter of the alphabet. There were small, two bedroom “A” houses, “C” houses with extra bedrooms, “D” houses with a dining room, and so forth for a total of 3,000 cemesto-type homes. Later, thousands of prefabricated houses were sent to Oak Ridge in sections complete with walls, floors, room partitions, plumbing and wiring. Workers turned over 30 or 40 houses to occupants each day.

Atomic Heritage Foundation – Locations – Oak Ridge, TN

In a town that was the developed by the government, I was surprised to learn it was actually built pretty quickly and efficiently. This revelation led to an exhibit titled Secret Cities – The Architecture and Planning of the Manhattan Project on display May 3, 2018 – July 28, 2019 in the National Building Museum that became the central focus of a visit I made with a friend to Washington, D.C., just before the exhibit closed.

As a fan of HGTV programs I have learned just enough to make me dangerous if/when I might ever encounter a new (to me) home that I wanted to remodel.  Many of the programs talk about load bearing walls and how expensive they are to replace when remodeling.  So, imagine my excitement when I learned that Oak Ridge’s historic and unique Alphabet Houses have no load bearing walls!  I was ready to redo and release a few to the young people I hope will be coming to work in Oak Ridge so they can preserve and revitalize the place where I was so happy.  I want a new generation to live and work in this Secret City, to keep it current and relevant as a source of information in what I consider to have been the setting for a great social experiment. I know they would make more fascinating history there!

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Places of My Life

Why do I want to live in a city that has a full time Historic Preservation Coordinator?

This is what I did that made me happy when I lived in the place where I was happiest.

During the short time that I worked in Oak Ridge, I didn’t learn a lot more about its history until my employer co-sponsored an event at what may be Oak Ridge’s biggest claim to fame, the American Museum of Science and Energy (AMSE).  I took advantage of this free opportunity to look at all the exhibits, the biggest and best of which introduced me to the history of Oak Ridge and The Manhattan Project.  The most interesting and salient points of “The Oak Ridge Story” were laid out as a timeline supplemented by copies or reproductions of artifacts that filled in the details of how it all had come to be and a lot of what it looked like back in the day.

From there, I took a long and wide road to discovering my interest in historic preservation in a pretty short time.  I probably started by looking at news and stuff in the long running and now nearly defunct local newspaper for leads and then most likely followed up with stops in the city, county and college libraries nearby which probably got me to places like local stores and restaurants and even to city hall.  After all of this I reached the conclusion that, at least from my perspective, most of the best parts of Oak Ridge were still kind of secret, and decided to do what I could to rectify that situation.

I became a Board member of the Oak Ridge Convention and Visitors Bureau (ORCVB) and developed a particular interest in restoring as much as possible the existing stock of the city’s historic buildings. I joined the Oak Ridge Heritage and Preservation Association after I found out that my neighbor was one of the founders and president of this nonprofit whose purpose is

to preserve and educate the public about Oak Ridge’s unique and rich technical and cultural history, and to work to preserve selected historical buildings of the WWII city…ORHPA awards a Historic Preservation Award annually. The award is given to a public-use facility that reflects guidelines outlined for historic preservation in the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards and Guidelines for Archaeology and Historic Preservation. The award is presented on September 19th-the date in 1942 that General Leslie Groves chose Oak Ridge as the site for the Manhattan Project processing plants.

https://oakridgeheritage.com/

ORHPA’s meeting place (and repository of other pertinent info it has collected since its founding) is located in the Midtown Community Center which was itself a Historic Preservation Award winner.  The building, located now in what I think of as the heart of Oak Ridge, was completed near the end of the war and gained its most popular moniker in 1951 when it became the “Wildcat Den”, a hangout spot for students at nearby Oak Ridge High School.  I never even entered this building until I became a member of ORCVB which was located at one end of the building at the time. I had already driven by it countless times by then and never even noticed any of the signage around it, directional or otherwise.

Even before it officially became the Oak Ridge History Museum, the glass cases in the Wildcat Den, in the big meeting room that housed the dances then and where meetings happen today, held a lot of memorabilia from the times that I barely remember as a child in the 1950s and 60s.  That was all there was until ORHPA and other longtime citizens gathered their own personal collections in the museum to shine a light on the “human side” of the Manhattan Project, focusing on history and people’s day-to-day lives during World War II (and really the decade or two after as well).

Photo possibly taken in the Wildcat Den possibly by Ed Westcott

All of my personal introduction to Oak Ridge’s fascinating real-life history is now combined in The Oak Ridge History Museum since it received or purchased and now displays 100 items from the American Museum of Science and Energy.  Circling back to what got me into this pursuit I can still see the timeline of Oak Ridge’s history, displays about the founding of Oak Ridge and the largest collection of original Ed Westcott (official Manhattan Project photographer and one of the first hires in Oak Ridge) photography available.

Narration by D. Ray Smith, Official Oak Ridge City Historian and my personal hero!
Categories
Places of My Life

Why do I want to live in a city that has a full time Historic Preservation Coordinator?

This is where I lived most happily for the most part for most of the last ten years.

Have you ever heard of the “Secret City” Oak Ridge, Tennessee?  I had barely heard of it myself before I pursued a job opening there after my first very unhappy period of retirement (2006-11).  Most of what I knew about it came from what I could read on the highway signs along Interstate 40 which may have included “passing” mentions of the town’s nickname and the Manhattan Project.  I may have looked it up in Wikipedia before the job interview; it’s introduced there thusly:

Oak Ridge was established in 1942 as a production site for the Manhattan Project—the massive American, British, and Canadian operation that developed the atomic bomb. Being the site of Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Y-12 National Security Complex, scientific and technological development still plays a crucial role in the city’s economy and culture in general.

That last sentence was what brought me there for a job but what I learned beyond that about this place, succinctly summarized in the first sentence, is a big part of why I wanted to stay and why I want to live in a city that has a Historic Preservation Coordinator or, as in the case of Oak Ridge, an official city historian.

Oak Ridge was instrumental in the United States win over Nazi Germany but when the U.S. government purchased nearly 90 square miles of mostly rural farmland, narrow valleys separated by ridged and rolling hills, in 1942, it did not appear on any map even though, by the end of WWII, it was the fifth-largest city in the state! In addition to being the new headquarters of the Manhattan Project after it was moved from its point of origin in the original Manhattan (New York City), it became the place of employment of nearly 100,000 people and the place of residence of 75,000 people, including Project employees and their families.

Oak Ridge today carries on the legacy of those fateful years so long ago. Several highly-secured nuclear research facilities still exist in the community and the city is home to a wealth of historic sites that tell the remarkable story of the Manhattan Project and the dawn of the atomic age.

Oak Ridge is now one of three sites of the recently established Manhattan Project National Historical Park.  I fortuitously retired right before the park officially opened and unfortunately had to leave before many of the real historic sites, along with new museums to augment them, would officially reopen.