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Photo: John Sturrock
“A modern mania for canal developments is reshaping cities by offering oases of calm in fast-moving town centres,” says the
Guardian.

When our kids were small, the Barge Canal (otherwise known as the Erie Canal) was as familiar to them as their friends’ backyard, as the elementary school, as the Hicks and McCarthy luncheonette. It ran right through town. I remember taking a canal-boat ride up and down (vertically) through the locks with a visiting grandmother and a picnic lunch.

In today’s story, John Vidal writes at the Guardian about a new focus on canals in England.

“Every second Monday of the month, a small group of volunteers meets in the training room of a Birmingham supermarket. They discuss what has long seemed to many of their friends a crazy and probably doomed idea: how to excavate a contaminated 40-year-old waste dump, create an urban marina, restore three miles of derelict canal and build several new bridges and locks.

“Last month, however, the meeting of the 18-strong Lapal Canal Trust committee was joyous. After 20 years of trying to restore this short stretch of the 200-year-old Dudley No 2 canal, permission had finally been granted, they were told.

“What’s more, a feasibility study showed that the plan – which would link the suburbs of California and Selly Oak by water – could be a catalyst for nothing short of the economic and ecological renaissance of a large area of south Birmingham.

“The new canal will generate jobs but also provide space for new houses, as well as pollution-free walking, boating and cycling routes. The marina for 60-100 boats will stimulate businesses and bring in tourists. The wildlife corridor created along the canal will attract herons, otters, fish and waterfowl. And although the whole project will cost about £5m, the study said it would pay for itself in six years.

“ ‘It will improve life in the city. It will complete an old canal loop around the city – we owe it to the future to restore it. … No one is objecting and we have nearly raised the first £250,000 – enough to start work,’ says the Lapal trust CEO, Hugh Humphreys.The Lapal plan is one of at least 80 canal renaissance projects currently making British towns and cities suitable for populations seeking tranquility, leisure space and new ways to move around. …

“It’s not just happening in Britain. … But few countries have as many urban canals as the UK, a legacy of British industrial might – and now a golden opportunity for transformation. Some, such as the Aldcliffe yard development in Lancaster, will see just a few expensive houses built on old industrial canal works; but many seek to create large new ‘liveable’ urban communities in what were some of the Britain’s polluted places, such as Wolverhampton, Leeds, Manchester, Lancaster, Glasgow, Liverpool and Birmingham. …

“Three things unexpectedly changed everything. A postwar infant canal leisure industry emerged; dozens of passionate heritage charities like the Lapal trust voluntarily restored many of the old waterways; and water proved to be the vital ingredient to kickstart a new, property-based canal mania.

“ ‘The restoration of the canals in the 1950s and 60s was thanks to a remarkable act of defiance by unpaid volunteers against the authorities,’ says canal historian Mike Clarke.

“ ‘Volunteers were vital. It’s unlikely there would be many canals today without them. The government, many influential people, and the British Waterways board, were all happy to see the majority filled in. … They told the government, “if you want to complain, take us to court.” …

” ‘They formed isolated stretches of peaceful country within the urban environment. Planners eventually saw them as an asset, and government at last understood their potential for leisure.’ …

” ‘The job is only half done in Britain,’ says Alison Smedley, policy officer of the Inland Waterways Association. ‘The restoration of Britain’s canal system is in full flow but there is so much left to do. … There are still about 1,800 miles left to be restored, although many [canals] have been filled in and are unlikely ever to be reclaimed,’ she says. …

“Canal and River Trust (CRT), the government-part-funded charity set up in 2012 to take over and manage the 2,000 miles of state-owned canal formerly run by British Waterways, [calculates] that about 10 million people a year visit the canals to fish, walk, cycle, observe wildlife or go boating. …

“In addition, canals have become a real alternative for people unable or unwilling to buy city property. .. Ten years ago 10% of the boats on British waterways were used as primary residences. It is now 26%, says the CRT. …

“ ‘Almost unnoticed, the canals have become important sanctuaries for urban and rural wildlife,’ says Simon Atkinson, head of conservation at the Birmingham and Black Country Wildlife Trust. … Otters, water voles, kingfishers, ducks, herons, fish, dragon- and damsel flies, even rabbits, are seen on the 100-odd miles of Birmingham canals, some of which are classed as local nature reserves. …

“ ‘If development is done well, it can enhance nature. The canals have never been more important, but it could go the other way. There is a real opportunity for high quality inner-city development and nature to flourish together.’ ”

For me as a lover of Dickens (the novels, not the man), I can’t think of English canals without thinking of the dark spirit of Bradley Headstone in Our Mutual Friend. In fact, maybe I’m ready to read that one again.

Learn more about the benefits and challenges of canal popularity here.

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Photo: Los Angeles Coliseum
Until a teenager decided to solve the mystery, the story of the coliseum mural was lost in the mists of time.

I’m pretty sure young people are going to save the planet, and after hearing speakers from one youth organization yesterday, This Is Zero Hour, I know I need to follow where they lead. Never underestimate the power of a teen who gets motivated to solve a problem.

On a lesser scale than saving the planet — but illustrating the point nevertheless — a Los Angeles teenage sleuth managed to solve the mystery of a beautiful, neglected mural and ended up providing critical information to the restoration team. Colleen Shalby has the story at the Los Angles Times.

“For decades, the curving mural depicting a golden sun has greeted visitors to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Faded by the elements, its once-vibrant blue lost some luster over the years. The gold-leaf paint had chipped away. Still, the image drew eyes upward.

“No one seemed to know who had painted the scene adorning the Coliseum’s main archway — or when. Guides referred to it as a ‘mystery mural,’ the story of its origins as shrouded by time as the artwork itself.

“But after taking a tour of the historic stadium a few years ago, one local teenager became engrossed with its history.

“Dean Gordon estimates he’s been to the Coliseum more than 100 times. But before that day, he’d never given much thought to the mural high above the peristyle entrance. Two golden Olympic torches flanking a flaming sun, its center a depiction of the planet Earth and the 12 signs of the Zodiac. Solving its mystery soon became his mission.

“Two summers ago, at age 17, Gordon began his quest — poring through library books and searching archives, hoping to find a clue that would lead him to the artist.

“ ‘I basically contacted every single person who might have an idea,’ he said, ‘every archivist, historian or professor who might have some connection to the mural,’ rumored to have been painted before the Coliseum hosted the 1932 Olympics.

“After a series of dead ends, Gordon found a clue in the form of a Los Angeles Central Library notecard that read ‘H. Rosien Coliseum.’ Further online digging produced nothing — until he came across a single tweet: ‘Please don’t touch the mural inside the arch that my FIL Heinz Rosien painted prior to the Olympics!!’

“The plea, posted in 2016, was from Mary Lou Rosien in response to the Coliseum’s announcement that parts of the stadium were being overhauled. The mural would be part of renovations, which eventually totaled $315 million, by USC. The university operates and manages the Coliseum. …

“Rosien’s husband, Igor, [and] his father, Heinz Rosien, had worked on the mural together. The Los Angeles Coliseum Commission tasked the elder Rosien with the job in 1969, in hopes of helping the city win a bid for the 1976 Olympics. …

“The archway of the Coliseum proved to be a precarious canvas. The underside of the curved portico stood more than 70 feet off the ground. To reach it, father and son scaled scaffolding without the aid of safety belts, which now are commonplace. They painted upside down. …

“The origins of the mural were all but lost — until Gordon started his detective work. The teen tracked Rosien shortly after spotting his wife’s tweet, shocked to learn that someone directly connected with the artwork was still alive.

‘The entire time I was trying to figure out who painted it, I thought it was from 1932,’ said Gordon, now 19 and a student at Amherst College in Massachusetts. ‘All my research was in that time period.’ …

“The end of Gordon’s search two years ago led to a series of hours-long discussions about the mural — and the start of a friendship between the younger Rosien and the student detective.

“ ‘Thankfully, Dean didn’t take “mystery mural” as an answer,’ Igor Rosien said. …

“Before the mural’s restoration got underway, Gordon and Rosien met outside the Coliseum. There, the artist presented the young detective with one of his dad’s paintings.”

More.

 

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Photo: Virginia Arts Festival
The original fire curtain of the Attucks Theatre in Norfolk, Virginia, depicts the Boston Massacre and the death of Crispus Attucks, the first to die in the Revolutionary War. Attucks was part African American and part Native American.

Don’t you love seeing old things restored and given new purpose? It’s not just the sight of a lovingly renewed object or building that’s inspiring, but the sense that anything that once had value can be brought back after years of abandonment.

Nicholas Som writes at CityLab, “Behind the modern walls of the Attucks Theatre in Norfolk, Virginia, century-old murals hide in darkness. Three pastoral scenes, created on the theater’s original 1919 walls, were uncovered in 2004 during the restoration that brought the theater back to life. But because of their age, exposing them to light and air could ruin them.

“ ‘Trying to find ways to create access to them without damaging them has been challenging,’ says Anthony Stockard, artistic director at Norfolk State University. So they’ll remain out of sight, sealed and preserved until a plan to display them safely can be established.

“Much like the murals, the history behind the Attucks itself is not immediately apparent from the brick and white terracotta that form the theater’s facade. But ask around Norfolk, and it won’t be too long before you find a city native with some kind of connection to the building. The place the Attucks holds in the collective memory of Norfolk’s African American community has not disappeared, even after years of vacancy, name changes, and collapsing ceilings.

“Appreciation for the Attucks is especially perceptible this year, the centennial of the theater’s construction. A steady stream of stars — from Leslie Jones of Saturday Night Live to basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — is lined up to speak or perform, complementing the typical artists the Attucks welcomes every year. Ticket sales have accordingly skyrocketed. …

“ ‘The Apollo of the South.’ That was the nickname the Attucks garnered, referencing the famed Big Apple music hall. With national sensations like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, and Ella Fitzgerald frequenting the stage, the Attucks was more than worthy of the designation. …

“Perhaps the Apollo Theater should be known as ‘The Attucks of the North.’ Because unlike the Apollo, the Attucks was funded and designed exclusively by African Americans, an extremely rare occurrence at the time. Twin City Amusement Corporation, the original developer, was formed by a group of black business owners. They approached local architect Harvey Johnson, who went on to help found what became Norfolk State University, to draw up the plans.

“Johnson always intended for the Attucks to be more than just a performance venue; in addition, it doubled as a silent movie house and contained 21 upstairs offices for African American businesses (Johnson himself set up shop there after its completion). They named the theater in honor of Crispus Attucks, a man of African and Native American descent who was the first person to die in the Revolutionary War, and depicted his death on its fire curtain. …

“The end of World War II brought changes that even the Attucks could not survive—at least, not in the same way. Young soldiers with money to spend returned to the city, and as Norfolk began to desegregate, the once-vibrant Church Street declined.

“Eventually, the curtain fell on the building’s time as a theater in 1953. … Denise Christian, project manager for the Attucks’ restoration, helped devise a three-phase approach. The first stage addressed the most pressing concerns: the blighted roof and the preservation of the historic curtain.

“Once pieces of the ceiling were no longer falling and the curtain had been cleaned and stored, the team moved on to the reconstruction of the auditorium seats, which had all been removed during the room’s years as a storage space. They decided to build around 700 new seats for comfort’s sake, though the theater originally squeezed in many more. Significant repairs also had to be made to the balcony and box seats.

“Finally, the Attucks was equipped with the modern trappings necessary for a multipurpose theater to succeed in the 21st century. A new three-story wing behind the building provides banquet rooms, dressing rooms, a green room, and a loading dock, transforming the Attucks into a place for events and arts classes, not just entertainment. …

“For Stockard, personally, being selected to co-chair Attucks100 by Norfolk mayor Kenny Alexander has felt like the culmination of a career-long dream, a ‘bucket-list moment. …

” ‘There was sort of a sense of nostalgia, of realizing these bricks were laid for and organized by African Americans,’ he says. ‘It was revolutionary for them to invest in the arts and entertainment that way—not just being the act, but being the producer and provider, and being able to control the place they had in the community.’ ”

More here.

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Photos: AFP/THOMAS COEX
Renovated mosaics and columns inside the Church of the Nativity in the occupied West Bank biblical city of Bethlehem.

Do you like mosaics? I relate to arts such as mosaics or collage because I love putting pieces of things together to make something new. As quilters do. And editors. And activists who change the world one by one.

This is a story from Bethlehem, in the Palestinian Territories, where restoration work has tapped the artistry of workers who can envision how small pieces together make a whole.

Clothilde Mraffko writes at Yahoo News, “Masked for centuries by the soot of candles and lately by scaffolding, the mosaics of Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity have been restored. …

“Over the past 15 months, experts have cleaned and repaired surviving fragments of the 12th century masterworks, preserving 1,345 square feet (125 square metres) of what was once 21,528 square feet (2,000 square metres) of glittering gold and glass. The rest has been eaten away by wear, humidity, wars and earthquakes.

“Now the restored remains shine against the white walls above the heads of visitors to the church in the Israeli-occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem that marks the traditional birthplace of Jesus.

“Overlooking the nave are seven angels framed in gold who appear to have landed on a carpet of vivid green grass. …

” ‘These mosaics are made of gold leaf placed between two glass plates,’ Marcello Piacenti, who supervises the work on behalf of his Italian family restoration firm Piacenti, told AFP [Agence France-Presse]. ‘Only faces and limbs are drawn with small pieces of stone.’

“One of the partially destroyed angel figures was restored using different materials to the original so as not to mislead future archaeologists. [!]

“Ibrahim Abed Rabbo, a Palestinian Authority (PA) engineer said the transformation caused by the restoration is striking. ‘When you entered the church before, you could not even make out that there were mosaics, it was so black,’ he said.

“In a rarity for the period, the works were signed by the craftsmen responsible, Abed Rabbo said. …

“Father Asbed Balian is the senior cleric of the Armenian church at the basilica, where property rights are shared with the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox faiths. After seeing the completed restoration, he said, he was ‘stunned. … Spiritually, we feel more exalted.’ …

“When the Palestinian Authority began renovations in 2013, ‘the basilica was in danger,’ PA restoration consultant Afif Tweme said. …

” ‘It’s very special, because of the location,’ said Piacenti. ‘Sometimes I have to force them (workers) to leave’ at the end of the day.” More here.

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Photo: Bobby Bascomb
The Grupo Vidas crew taking a break from their coral restoration work in Puerto Rico.

Perhaps inadvertently, media stories lead one to believe that all Puerto Ricans are passively waiting for the Mounties to rescue them from the destruction of Hurricane Maria. The Mounties surely better get their act together, but residents of the island are not counting on them. They’re taking matters into their own hands. I plan to post soon about the women who are rebuilding the island’s farming industry, but today the topic is restoring damaged coral reefs.

The National Public Radio (NPR) show Living on Earth has the story.

“Roughly 10 percent of Puerto Rico’s corals were broken and damaged by Hurricane Maria in 2017. Corals are a first line of defense against storm surges and a critical habitat for juvenile fish but face an uphill battle against warming seas, ocean acidification and ship groundings. As Host Bobby Bascomb reports, Puerto Ricans are finding ways to give corals a fighting chance by reattaching healthy fragments. …

“BASCOMB: Chunks of coral were broken off by rough seas and ocean swells. But on a recent trip to Puerto Rico, I discovered there’s still hope for thousands of battered bits of coral lying around the sea floor.

“I’m standing on a tall dune near Vega Baja on Puerto Rico’s north coast. The ocean stretches out in shades of dark blue, turquoise, and pale aquamarine. But interspersed among the usual colors of a tropical ocean are patches of brownish orange – elkhorn coral.

“Salvador Loreano is a worker with the environmental NGO Grupo V.I.D.A.S. Their main task is coral restoration.

“S. LOREANO: Our goal right now is to plant coral fragments here because you know that Maria, Hurricane Maria, came here and devastated the island. This caused great damage to the coral reef because the first time we went to there after Maria, the reef was like destroyed, like we see big coral colonies upside down and a lot of dead coral.

“BASCOMB: As long as they remain submerged under water, these coral, which are colonies of tiny invertebrate animals, have a 20 percent chance of survival. But that increases to more than 90 percent if they are attached to a larger structure, not getting banged around by the surf or smothered with sand.

If a piece of coral is at least 2 inches long and 80 percent healthy, it can actually be reattached to an existing reef. …

“MARIOLA LOREANO: [Here’s] a slate where we write our tallies, basically, which is all of the fragments that we’ve successfully planted, a bag for any trash that we find inside the ocean, and a buoy so it floats. …

“BASCOMB: We put on our mask, snorkel, and fins and walk backwards into the bath-warm water, stepping over the sharp black sea urchins. … A rainbow of fish greets us – green fish with florescent blue heads, black fish with yellow stripes, green fish with pink stripes. They’re all juvenile fish, and the reef is a critical habitat for them. …

“A worker named Ernesto is already hard at work. He uses a wire brush to scrape algae off a piece of coral the size of a ping pong paddle and does the same to a suitable spot on the reef. Just like gluing two objects together, you need to start with a clean surface on both sides. Then he pulls a plastic zip tie out of his sleeve and uses it to attach the coral in place.

“He uses pliers with a florescent pink handle to pull the zip tie tight and cut off the excess plastic, which he sticks in his other sleeve. This piece of coral is now one of hundreds just like it pinned to the reef with zip ties. And in two to three weeks, it will grow onto the reef enough to stay put on its own. …

“BASCOMB: If hurricane damage was the only issue, this work wouldn’t be necessary. But much like the world’s coral reefs in general, this reef has a lot of challenges. Grupo V.I.D.A.S. worker Ernesto says one of the biggest problems is algae blooms from sewage runoff. In many places the coral is essentially smothered, leaving it a ghostly gray color. …

“E. VÉLEZ GANDÍA: It’s like Day of the Dead but under the water.

“BASCOMB: There is a very large dead coral at the entrance to the reef in the shallowest, warmest water. Ernesto believes that one died not from algae blooms but from stress of a warming ocean. … Ernesto talks about the death of that coral as one might talk about a member of the family passing away.

“VÉLEZ GANDÍA: And we got a lot of love for him. We saw him alive, very alive. He is one of the oldest in our reef, but he start dying. We saw the process of his death. So, we just admire him and remember him. It’s very sentimental, I don’t know, but it’s deep in the heart.”

More at Living on Earth, here. And you can read another article about ways to save reefs at Earther, here.

Photo: Sean Nash
Elk horn coral are part of a vital reef ecosystem that provide habitat for fish. In Puerto Rico, many were damaged after Hurricane Maria.

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When I was last in Manhattan, I took a photo of a putative Banksy stencil. It’s one that the gourmet food emporium Zabar’s helped to preserve in 2013, when the British street artist was said to be tagging all five New York City boroughs.

I have written often about Banksy — here, for instance. I get a real kick out of his ideas and the fact that he works by stealth. (Speaking of that, if you search on the word “stealth” at the blog, you will find all kinds of examples.)

Banksy’s art, like other street art, is not necessarily meant to last for the ages, but he has become such a phenomenon that there are now efforts to restore murals that have been painted over.

The BBC reports from Scotland, “Restoration work is under way on three early works by the artist Banksy which were accidentally painted over with grey emulsion in a Glasgow nightclub.

“The murals, which feature a gun-toting monkey in a tutu and a framed Mona Lisa, were created as part of an exhibition at The Arches in 2001. But they were mistakenly covered in 2007 then left after the club went into administration [bankruptcy] in 2015.

“A team of restorers are expected to take five months to uncover the works. … Banksy created the works, which also feature the words ‘Every time I hear the word culture I release the safety on my 9mm’ when he was beginning his career as a graffiti artist.

“They were shown as part of the ‘Peace is Tough‘ exhibition in March 2001, … but six years later, and long after Banksy had established himself as an international artist, the murals were covered with grey emulsion during refurbishment work at the nightclub.

“When the club went into administration in 2015, the then owners had considered restoring the murals and selling them to clear the club’s debts.

“Chris Bull, technical director at Fine Arts Restoration Co (Farco), which is carrying out the restoration, said the murals were the only known works by Banksy in Scotland with any provenance. …

“The new owners of the venue, Argyle Street Arches, say they now want to save the works for the nation. … Once complete the works will be put on permanent display.”

More at the BBC, here.

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Photo: The Stage
The cast of Brick Up the Mersey Tunnels at Liverpool’s restored Art Deco Royal Court theater has had six runs and has been seen by more than 175,000 people.

Before restoration began on a dilapidated theater in Liverpool, a decision was made to ensure the new venue was truly responsive to everyday Liverpudlians.

Catherine Jones writes at The Stage, “The Scouse Nativity broke attendance records at Liverpool’s Royal Court [in December] after 42,000 people flocked through the doors of the art deco building during the play’s run.

“It’s not a bad way to see in its 80th anniversary year for a venue that has gone from outsider status on the city’s art scene to ‘people’s theatre’ over the course of a decade. There has been a theatre on the site for almost 200 years.

Pablo Fanque, celebrated in Beatles song ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite,’ performed there in the Victorian era when circus acts and variety thrilled the crowds.

“The current [venue] has been through many incarnations since it opened with musical comedy Under Your Hat in 1938. … When the current team took over the city council-owned building in spring 2005 [there was] no heating, no stalls seating, and the floors were sticky.

“Royal Court executive producer Kevin Fearon recalls: ‘The building was horrible. We put a Lycra mesh across the top of the stalls, so you hid the circle. That kept some of the heat in. It was actually the biggest piece of Lycra in Europe at the time.’ …

“In the ensuing decade, Fearon says it was a struggle to be accepted by the local theatre scene. It was also a struggle to keep the business running, where receipts from a production paid for the next to be staged.

“But four key moments helped turn the Court’s fortunes around. It started with the ‘game-changing’ success of ribald Scouse comedy Brick Up the Mersey Tunnels. …

“Setting up the Royal Court Trust, headed by partner Gillian Miller, to drive the theatre’s redevelopment was another key stage, as was securing financial support from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

“Along with Heritage Lottery funding, the work has been paid for by grants from the European Regional Development Fund, a city council loan and, most recently, £2 million Arts Council funding, assisted by £630,000 from a ticket levy that was started in 2011. …

“Lindzi Germain, a regular face at the Royal Court, is also one of the actors given the chance to write their own play — her hospital-set disaster comedy — The Royal already having two successful runs. She says: ‘It was unbelievable, it really was, for them to give me a chance. And now also to be asked, “what else have you got? What else are you going to write?” ‘

“As for the audience, Germain adds: ‘They get so involved and so engrossed. In some shows, it’s like it’s just them watching a play on their own. They feel the need to shout out.’ ”  More.

Refreshing the audience pool is always a challenge for theaters. I hope the Royal Court has some cheap tickets for people who can’t regularly pay for full-price tickets with surcharges. And I always think, the more you can sort of roll out of bed and into the theater, the more likely people will attend. By which I mean — informal. My husband and I also favor 90-minutes and no intermission unless the theater is doing Angels in America or Nicholas Nickleby.

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