Monday, September 29, 2014

Borrowed Scenery – Portland’s Japanese Garden

Posted by Debby Yoder, Portland, Oregon -- Portland is home to a Japanese Garden rated one of the best outside Japan. It was envisioned in the late 1950s as part of the healing process after World War II. Portland became a sister city to Sapporo, Japan and the garden opened soon after. It is part of the city’s biggest and busiest public green space, Washington Park, a 400-acre facility that included the International Rose Test Garden, the Oregon Zoo, the Portland Children’s Museum, the World Forestry Center Discovery Museum, and the Hoyt Arboretum, along with memorials to the Holocaust, Vietnam Veterans, Sacagawea, and Lewis and Clark. 

The park includes miles of trails for hiking and exploring, tennis courts and soccer fields and significant public art. It opened in 1871 and has been expanded several times. John C. Olmstead visited in 1903 and recommended a number of changes of significant impact. Shortly after, a nearby poor farm was declared “decrepit,” its 160-acres were absorbed into the park for the municipal arboretum and a 9-hole golf course. Later, the city relocated and expanded the zoo into this new area, making room for the Japanese Garden.

The Japanese Garden is divided into five distinctive areas, each representing a different type of garden. They reflect the cycles of nature- changes of season, landscape, water levels, and the growth of trees and plants, life and death. Americans notice the unique bridges, lanterns and water basins but the most important elements are the use of stone, gates, water and plants. The pathways are deliberate, created as transitional spaces between gardens, allowing one to prepare for each experience. 

The tea garden is for peaceful reflection and a detachment from the busyness of everyday life. The strolling garden replicates the gardens of residences that were designed to display wealth and status. It includes moon and zig-zag bridges, a waterfall and a large koi pond. The dry landscape garden, in the Zen Monastery tradition, was designed for contemplation and embraces the Japanese tradition of using “borrowed scenery” with its views of Mt. Hood and downtown Portland. The garden is designed to offer something new with each season, embracing the cycles of life and death, and illustrating the beauty of change. No cell phones allowed.

Debby Yoder is a contributor to Social Shutter as well as a Sociology major at Georgia State University. She can be reached at

Sunday, September 21, 2014

From Acclaimed TV Series Homicide and The Wire, to House of Cards: Is Imagined Baltimore Being Reimagined?

Posted by Chandra Ward, BALTIMORE, MD -- Before going to Baltimore to visit an old friend recently, I knew little about the city except that it was the TV setting for acclaimed TV series “Homicide: Life on the Street” and  “The Wire”. Apparently the city made a great visual backdrop for portrayals of inner city inequality, racial discrimination, poverty, blight, disinvestment, violence and drug addiction. I realized during my visit that my impressions of Baltimore were almost completely constructed by Hollywood depictions of both intended and unintended urban pathology. And yet despite its success in this niche, the city’s image management professionals appear to be moving away from this imagery through revitalization and art.  

My friend lives in a three story row house in a “changing” neighborhood called Reservoir Hill.  The neighborhood has a mix of nice row houses, less than nice row houses and empty row houses.  I witnessed some of the worst inner city blight I’ve ever seen: empty, shot out residences, poor infrastructure, and garbage all over the sidewalks. And yet all sorts of people, including kids, seniors, and parents with babies going about their daily lives through it all. At the same time I also witnessed active gentrification in Reservoir Hill. In fact, I saw a city embracing street art initiatives and revitalization through relocation, and visited a wonderful collectivist bookstore and coffee shop.  I saw all this even though I was only there for two days.

Through these efforts Baltimore can now be associated with the new acclaimed TV series House of Cards Baltimore is now the place where you can see the political elite in character Zoe Barnes’ apartment or Frank and Claire Underwood’s row house. The catch, however, is that the hit political drama is not set in Baltimore, but in Washington D.C. You would only know that some of the series is filmed in Baltimore through someone living in Baltimore (which is how I found out) or by researching the series.  

Will the old TV images of Baltimore simply evaporate or be reimagined into something new?  Clearly image matters as much as money in the long run for City Hall. However, we must also hope that this prosperity extends to those Baltimore residents whose composite lives and stories have already brought prosperity to Hollywood and Baltimore. These are Citizens who did not gain anything from the lucrative negative imagery. So we need to ask: Will these residents gain anything from this far more elite imagery?

Chandra Ward is a Doctoral Student in the Sociology Department at Georgia State University as well as the Managing Editor for Social Shutter. She can be contacted at

Sunday, September 14, 2014

My Drive-by Photo Shoot of Camden

Posted Deirdre Oakley, CAMDEN, NJ – I recently had the pleasure of being invited to give a talk at Rutgers University’s Camden campus at the Center for Urban Research and Education (CURE). I was thoroughly impressed, not only with the center but also with the diverse and engaged group that showed up to my talk – a group that included academics, graduate and undergraduate students, as well as grassroots and civic leaders from the city. I also learned quite a bit about Camden. On the positive end it has a very well-organized and comprehensive public transportation system (something utterly lacking in Atlanta), as well as a growing university and medical institutional presence. Indeed, the Rutgers-Camden campus is beautiful and committed to doing innovative projects which engage students with the nearby communities. Many of these projects are initiated and run by the students themselves with the support of the university.

One the negative side, it’s also a city with a 42 percent poverty rate, making it one of the poorest cities in the country; and a vacancy rate just has high, even though Philadelphia is a mere stone’s throw away. On the other hand, with a reorganized police force, the murder rate has dropped from 67 to six in the last year or so. And the police aren't going around needlessly killing unarmed Black teenage males. Yet it’s still a place of extreme blight, some of which I captured in my drive-by photo shoot of Camden that my hosts were kind enough to take me on. If we had had more time we certainly would have hit the pavement. The few times I did get out of the car to take a photo, residents were friendly and seemed interested in our interest in their neighborhood.

The blight in some parts of the city was mind blowing – and this is coming from me, an urban sociologist whose visited, on foot, some of the worst parts of American cities over the last 15 years. What really struck me were the iron-gated porches right next to open porches, the boarded up buildings, and something I had never seen before: blighted cemeteries. Angelo Fichera wrote an article recently entitled Camden Cemeteries Offer No Respite from Blight.  What follows are the rest of my drive-by photos, as well as one by John Ziomek of a blighted cemetery in Camden. Taken in total these photos illustrate why a cynical urban sociologist like me came away with a new perspective on American urban blight. And guess what, I want to go back and learn more and, maybe even try to help in some way that would include all the residents. Why?  Because I really liked this city. In fact, if you could get rid of all the corrupt politicians in Jersey, this city would certainly have a chance.

     Photo Credit: Courier-Post Photo/John Ziomek.

Deirdre Oakley is the Editor of Social Shutter and an Associate Professor of Sociology at Georgia State University. She can be reached at