Traveling West on Old Route 66

Traveling West on Old Route 66


Driving from Birmingham to Little Rock, AR we encountered a warm, green landscape of forests and rolling hills called the Boston Mountains. I had forgotten how beautiful the South was and this area really impressed me. We drove from northern Alabama to northeastern Mississippi through the beautifully named town of Tupelo. This was part of the South that neither of us had seen and it was fascinating. As we drove through Memphis I waved in the direction of Graceland and vowed to come back and spend more time. At Little Rock we finally got on Interstate 40 which was the old Route 66. Besides the song and the TV show, Route 66 was the road West for many of the Dust Bowl migrants in the 1930s. The fictional Joad family in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath followed this road all the way to the Promised Land of California and so will we.


The next day we followed this Mother Road through the drier rolling hills of the many Indian Nations of eastern Oklahoma. This area describes itself as Native America for a reason. In the early 19th century our country had a process of forcibly removing the Native Americans from their land in the South and sending them to eastern Oklahoma. This eventually led to the infamous Trail of Tears that is now recognized as a crime against the humanity of the Native People. Many of their descendants still live here, even after the State of Oklahoma was opened up to white settlement in the latter part of the 19th century. The Indigenous people were continuing the process of reclaiming their heritage and identity and we saw many Native American license plates on the cars of different tribes of this area. I remember seeing the struggles of the Indigenous people in Canada and realized that this will be a long process of healing.

We pulled into Oklahoma City in a beautiful late afternoon light and headed straight to the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum. Here was the site of the famous Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 by two white nationalist, nut-jobs Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. One hundred and sixty-eight people died here and six hundred and eighty were injured. It remains the deadliest incident of domestic terrorism in the US. On one side of the Memorial was a field of symbolic bronze and stone chairs – one for each person lost. The chairs represent the empty chairs at the dinner tables of the victims’ families. A chain link fence which had surrounded the site of the blast had attracted over 800,000 personal items of commemoration. Part of the fence was still on display. Like the memorials we saw in Alabama, these symbols against hate were effective, gut-wrenching and important.


Oklahoma City National Memorial, Oklahoma City, OK


Today we drove through western Oklahoma and the Panhandle of Texas arriving nine hours later in Santa Fe, NM. Compared with the eastern part of the state, Western Oklahoma was flatter, drier and whiter. It still contained some of the rolling hills of the East, but we finally felt like we had entered the American West. The austerity and aridity of this land is so different from the Eastern US. After two months on the road we felt, in some ways, that we had come back home.

Podcasts and CDs were our constant companions. The news about our President was so bad that the intervals of music brought us great joy. But each time we went back to the news, things only seem to get worse. It is ironic to be traveling through a part of the country that so solidly supports Trump. When will they finally abandon him?

After another long-haul drive we arrived at the house of our old, dear friends Meridel and Jerry. She is a well-known and wonderful photographer who taught for many years in Singapore. She is currently working on a long-term environmental photographic project in Iraq. Jerry comes from an old New Mexican ranching family and is a brilliant painter. He has worked most of his life as a contractor.

They used to be married but are still good friends and live next to each other. Meridel’s partner Ben has been an Oscar-winning documentary film maker and is about to start teaching for one year at a university in Sweden.

This was the rich mix of accomplished people that we were staying with for one full day. We greatly enjoyed just staying still in the glorious desert. We were like wide-eyed, shell-shocked children as we wandered through a near-by arroyo secco.

We also enjoyed watching the three-hour Democratic over Vietnamese take-out. We all spent the evening trying to figure out who among the twelve people on stage will be our next President.



Santa Fe to Flagstaff, AZ was another back-aching, bun-busting long drive. Fortunately, the wide-open spaces were awe inspiring. It even seemed appropriate to hear a Terry Gross interview on singing cowboys. Peanut butter and hot sauce was was our essential road food.


A massive forest fire obliterated the famously blue skies as we approached Flagstaff. We had read about the recent disastrous fires in this region and in Southern California. It is another sickening result of climate change inaction by the Republican climate change deniers in Washington. Smoke clung to the air as we entered the forests of Flagstaff. As the American West was again burning, we saw one more reason why the next election is so crucial.



Our second-to-last day of this epic journey took us from Flagstaff to Bakersfield, CA. The beautiful Arizona forests turned into a drier, hotter desert as we descended to the Colorado River.


We crossed into California at the small town of Needles. I tried to imagine what it must have been like for the Dust Bowl refugees of the 1930s as they entered what they believed to be the Promised Land.

We zip through the great, dry desert and we rise up to a high plateau on the southern edge of the Mojave National Preserve. I know and love this area well having taught workshops in the Park for over ten years at a great little place called Zzyzx. Halfway between Barstow and the desert town of Mojave was a small intersection called Kramer’s Junction. We stopped to get gas and found ourselves in the middle of a giant sandstorm. The force of nature was both frightening and awe-inspiring.


Crossing over the Tehachapi Mountains we were struck by the ethereal light of the clouds and sky and also the vastness entering the San Joaquin Valley.


I have spent so much time working on projects in this area that I felt I was entering home. Bakersfield is a tragic, poetic and fascinating place. It has some of the worst air-quality in the country and yet has also produced some great writers and a unique form of country western music called the Bakersfield Sound. I always think of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens when I drive through here. I was amazed to hear on the local public radio station some guy who had organized a pro-Trump rally here complaining about all the people driving by flipping him off. With what has been going on, what was he expecting even here in conservative Bakersfield?


We discovered an oil-derrick themed hipster coffee shop in downtown Bakersfield. It was excellent and gave me hope for the revival of the downtown.

The five-hour drive to San Francisco gave us time to think and talk about the big take-aways from our two-moth journey around the edges of our country. Three new ideas emerged from this journey. The first was the relationship between the Indigenous people of Canada and education. Sadly, we found that some of those efforts were misguided. I had always felt that education could be a great tool to help lift people out of poverty and elevate their lives. We found, in some cases, education could also become a form of cultural genocide for the Native people.

The second big take-away occurred in Québec. We saw many churches in the province that had gradually lost their parishioners and had been abandoned. Ironically, several of these churches had become public libraries. Why the loss of faith? What caused the people of Québec to abandon their once dominant religion? Why were secular public libraries occupying what was once a religious space? What does all this say about the sacred and the secular in contemporary French-Canadian society?

Finally, the last take-away occurred in the South. Here we traced the epic struggle for Civil Rights, especially in Alabama. I was fascinated by the role that libraries played in that struggle. I was encouraged to see that libraries continued their role not only as community centers but, for some communities, as a place to heal a broken civic space. This idea deserves a lot more research and I will be coming back to explore this more in the future.

It was with great joy that we finally came to a stop at our home in San Francisco. We had traveled almost 11,000 miles circumnavigating the country. We will now stay still for a while and absorb the many lessons we have learned. Thanks for coming along for the ride! Between this trip and the Fulbright Fellowship, we have been on the road for eight out of the last fourteen months. Time for a break and I will be back in touch.

Until then…



Filed under Uncategorized

Through the Cradle of the Civil War and Civil Rights

Through the Cradle of the Civil War and Civil Rights 


After spending most of September in Vermont, we headed south at the beginning of October. While staying with Ellen’s sister Martha we visited the wonderful Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum in Boston.

We stayed with our friends Dave and Claudia in Salisbury Mills, NY in the Hudson River Valley.

We spent one day taking the train to New York City to see a retrospective show of Vija Celmins at the Met Breuer Museum and have dinner with our friends Lynn and Stanley in Brooklyn.

The next day we drove to Washington, DC to stay with our friends Jeff and Susie.

Jeff used to work at the Smithsonian and he took us to see the new and astonishing National Museum of African-American Art and Culture. We didn’t realize it at the time, but this Museum set us up for the rest of our trip through the South.


As we drove south from Washington, I felt like we had entered the South. Being born and raised in California, I have always been fascinated by this part of the country. My father and I used to have big arguments about civil rights when much of the history of that movement was being played out here in the 1960s. As we drove through Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia I noted my first impressions: red dirt, kudzu, Southern pines, anti-abortion ads, friendliness, Civil War memories, peaches, William Christenberry’s photographs, Civil War battlefield sites, Lewis Hine photographs, Walker Evans and the 1930’s Farm Security Administration’s photographs and listening to the Blues.

After the end of a long drive and listening to lots of podcasts about the insanity with our President, we arrived at the small but very pleasant town of Eclectic, Alabama. It was founded  in 1907 by a practitioner of eclectic medicine, hence the name. I had spent 18 years photographing libraries throughout the United States but, unfortunately, didn’t photograph any libraries in Alabama or Hawaii. I was here in Alabama to make amends and help complete the project. The Eclectic Library was housed in the old red-brick jail. Behind it was a very large water tower. Inside, the librarians were very enthusiastic about our project and took me on a grand tour of their tiny library. In the half an hour tour I learned much about this place including that Jessie Owens, Hank Williams, Willie Mays and Condoleezza Rice all came from Alabama. We later pulled into the capitol city of Montgomery after dark. I was exhausted after the long drive but happy to have finally photographed a library in Alabama. Impressions of this state included cotton, aerospace billboards, lots of churches, high school football, “Jesus Saves”, and vast tree farms.

Eclectic Public Library, Eclectic, AL


Ellen’s sister Martha had recently told us about a new museum in Montgomery dedicated to the civil rights struggle called the Legacy Museum. A few days ago, we had visited the National Museum of African-American Arts and Culture in Washington, DC. That museum was a great celebration of the accomplishments of African-Americans as well as some of the dark history of slavery and segregation. The Legacy Museum focused on the grim reality of slavery and segregation and the heroic fight of the Civil Rights Movement.


Of course, Montgomery was one of the largest centers of the nineteenth-century slave trade, was one of the capitols of the Confederacy and was the scene of the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott which was an early battle for civil rights. As a result, there was great resonance in standing in the place of so much human suffering and conflict.

One of the great turning points in the Civil Rights struggle was the march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery in 1965. We drove the 54-mile National Historic Trail in reverse arriving in the depressed town of Selma around mid-day. As we drove over the historic Edmund Pettus bridge, we came upon the scene of the Bloody Sunday police riot. Here, State Troopers beat the marchers with night clubs, then donned gas masks and released tear gas to further terrorize the marchers. The demonstrators began running back, stumbling over each other and trying to ward off blows. The troopers and posse continued to use nightsticks, whips and rubber tubes to drive the marchers through the streets of Selma. Standing on these same streets I felt it made these awful events more real by physically being in the place of such historic consequence.

Public Library, Selma, ALIMG_3555

The one place in Selma that offered some release from the surrounding poverty and grim history was the Selma Public Library. The exterior and landscaping seemed like an oasis. The interior contained an extraordinary quilt that was produced by the community churches. It addressed Selma’s painful past and was an attempt to continue the community’s struggle to heal. There was no better place for this than the Selma Public Library which had literally witnessed such horrors on its front steps 54 years ago.

Public Library, Selma, AL

Public Library, Selma, AL

We drove west from Selma and as we turned off on to Alabama State Highway 61 (not to be confused with Mississippi’s Highway 61 that Bob Dylan made famous) we entered the very rural Alabama Black Belt. This name refers to the incredibly rich soils that stretch all the way to Georgia and the Carolinas. It was also the heart of the plantation cotton and slave empires of the antebellum South. Cotton was still grown here but the crops have been diversified. This was beautiful country, especially in the warm, Fall afternoon light.

We arrived in the fascinating restored town of Newbern, AL. It was very small with a population of 186 and a per capital income of $9,476. The Rural Studio of Auburn University was based in Newbern. Its architecture students work under the supervision of faculty designing and building affordable housing and similar projects to support the population of rural areas of Alabama. One of the projects the Rural Studio built was the Newbern Public Library. It was housed in a former bank and the building was donated by a local family to become a social center and the first public internet point in the community. It was designed to be a resource-rich social center, but also to preserve the town’s history, heritage and memories. Newbern and its library gave me some hope for the future.

Newbern Library, Newbern, Hale Co., ALNewbern Library, Newbern, Hale Co., AL

Newbern Library, Newbern, Hale Co., ALNewbern Library, Newbern, Hale Co., AL

Newbern is located in Hale County, Alabama. Walker Evans photographed the area in 1936 with writer James Agee. They looked at a group of dirt-poor, white tenant farmers in one of the poorest parts of the rural South. They produced their famous book from this project called Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in 1941. Photographer William Christenberry also worked here for many years. In 2019, the film “Hale County This Morning, This Evening” by artist RaMeil Ross was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, poetically addressing the region’s shift in demographers and the power of intra-community cooperation.

Central Alabama copy

The second library we photographed in Hale County was in the town of Greensboro, the Catfish Capitol of Alabama. This area was also central to the cotton/slave empires and was part of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. In 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King hid from Klu Klux Klan members here in what is now operated as The Safe House Black Historic Museum. The beautiful Hale County Library dates back to 1925. Additions to the Library have maintained the original style. The very smart, literate and gracious librarian was kind enough to let us stay a half an hour after closing time while she filled in Ellen with the local history and I scrambled around the small library with my camera.

Hale County Library, Greensboro, AL

Hale County Library, Greensboro, ALHale County Library, Greensboro, AL

We then drove into the night in a white-knuckle downpour. Listening to podcasts about the crazy stuff coming out of the White House was the only thing that distracted us from the sheets of rain and lighting all around us. We finally landed in Birmingham, AL, exhausted.


In our hotel there was a large room with a big screen TV showing Trump blathering on at one of his rallies. I was encouraged to see that no one was watching the story and everyone had turned their backs to the screen and the President. I was also happy to see a car in the parking lot from Mississippi with a “Republicans Against Trump” sticker on the bumper.


Walker had urged us to have a meal at SAW’s BBQ in Birmingham. It was absolutely a highlight and my shrimp and grits meal was incredible.

Our first stop was the famous Birmingham Public Library which had been the scene of a sit-in in 1963 to force the desegregation of this Jim Crow era library. We weren’t able to photograph the beautiful Reading Room where that sit-in took place. But I did photograph the exteriors of the both the old and new libraries. This library made me think that I should think about starting a new project on libraries that were important in the Civil Rights struggle including ones today such as the library in Ferguson, MO. More on that later as this idea develops…

The next stop was the site of the death of four little girls on Birmingham Sunday. The lyrics of that famous Richard Fariña song were in my mind as I gazed at the reconstructed 16th Street Baptist Church. In 1963 members of the Ku Klux Klan blew up the church in a terrorist attack killing the four girls and injuring 22 others. No prosecutions were conducted until 1977 when one of the killers was convicted. The others were convicted in 2001. The bombing marked a turning point in the Civil Rights movement and contributed to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

IMG_354316th St. Baptist Church and Park, Birmingham, AL


Martin Luther King described Birmingham in 1963 as “probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States”. It was nicknamed “Bombingham” because of the large number of bombings of black properties and churches that occurred during the eight years before 1963. We walked through a park near the church that was a rallying point during the protests. Here, peaceful protestors were knocked to the ground by powerful water cannons. Police dogs attacked women, men and children. Several hundred protestors filled the city’s jails including many children. The park was filled with sad memorials to all of this and more.

16th St. Baptist Church and Park, Birmingham, AL16th St. Baptist Church and Park, Birmingham, AL

I was deeply moved and my heart was crying as I stood in the park remembering the words “On Birmingham Sunday/ the noise shook the ground/ and people all over the world turned around/ no one recalled a more cowardly sound/ and the choir kept singing of freedom.” Amen.

This seems like an appropriate place to end this post. From Birmingham we will drive to Little Rock, AR; Oklahoma City, OK; Santa Fe, NM; Flagstaff, AZ; Bakersfield, CA and finally home. I’ll do one more post at the end. Until then…



Filed under Uncategorized

Back in Vermont and a Short Trip Up North to Québec City

Two Turtles on a Duck: Paying Attention to Small Things in Rural Vermont


After two weeks on the road, we now spent two weeks visiting friends and family and just chilling out in rural Vermont. One of the big benefits of staying in one place is slowing down and noticing the small things that get lost when moving fast. Like watching the two resident turtles climb on the back of an old, wooden decoy duck in our pond and spend the rest of the day blissfully floating in the sun. Here is a sampling of what we saw while paying attention to the details.


RD at the Farm, VT

Five Libraries That Were Churches, One A Former Prison and One on the Border With an Opera House 


Our Library Road Trip continued with a four-day journey to the French speaking Canadian province of Québec. We traveled through agricultural lands and a large mining district around the town of Thetford Mines. As we drove through this area, we saw the raw, rugged landscape of industrial mining. In the twilight, this place was both beautiful and horrible at the same time.

We arrived at beautiful Québec City after dark. We drove on to where we were staying at the pastoral and enchanting Ile d’Orléans. This island is located 15 km from Québec City in the middle of the St. Lawrence River with gorgeous views of downtown and the surrounding farmland. We were here many years ago with our son Walker and we were curious to see how it had changed. Because it was so late and no restaurants were still open on the island we dined on crackers, some good Gouda cheese, apples from our place in Vermont and some excellent local beer. Delicious!



One of the important things we learned on this part of the trip was that Québec has experienced a large drop in people attending church. In 2014, 434 churches in the province were unable to support their religious functions and were awaiting transformation into something else. That was up from 270 churches in 2012. Thirty-one churches have been converted into cultural purposes such as concert spaces and libraries. I am not sure why there is such a change in faith. It does seem that the people here are less religious than their conservative Catholic ancestors. In the past, the church was a major force in banning books that were considered not pious enough. Ironically, some of these same churches have now become public libraries.

The first place we visited was the elegant Library Monique-Corriveau housed in this former church since 2013. The church was built in 1964 and was considered a prime example of Québec’s modern architectural heritage. It was named after a local author who wrote a children’s book for each of her ten children. This modern structure had a distinctive steeple sweeping up from the front of this large building. Inside, the active library retained some of the references to religious architecture. The big, vaulted room still felt a little like a place where prayer was expected. I was surprised to find a piece of public art in the form of a dress made out of discarded pop-tops. This library does much work to help new immigrants including help with job searches, CV writing, internships, citizenship help, housing, health, schools, cultural codes, etc. Of course, everyone spoke French and the patrons seemed to represent a diverse background. I imagined that some of them were immigrants from French-speaking countries.

Library Monique-Corriveau, Québec City, QC

Library Monique-Corriveau, Québec City, QC

In the central Québec City neighborhood of Saint Jean-Baptiste, we discovered the amazing Library Claire-Martin. ­­It was named after a famous Québec author who lived to be 100 years old and was still publishing new books at 94. The Library is located in the former St. Matthew’s Anglican Church and is next to a cemetery dating from 1772 to 1860 where many famous people from the history of Québec’s English-speaking community are buried. After a great fire, the church was rebuilt in 1848 in a Neo-Gothic style and was later rebuilt again in the early 20th century. This library feels much more like a church than the last one and even retains a small alter and baptismal. It was breathtaking to see the transformation. We were impressed by the vision to take an old church and make it into a vital and active contemporary library. I envy the librarians that work here.

Library Claire-Martin, Québec, QC

Library Claire-Martin, Québec, QC

Library Claire-Martin, Québec, QC

Library Claire-Martin, Québec, QC

After spending much time photographing the extraordinary interior I wandered towards the outside to the back of the library. There, next to the ancient cemetery, I discovered a wonderful reading sculpture. Over the years, I have photographed many sculptures like this outside libraries. This one depicted a young woman reading a book. On the book someone had placed a photograph of a young boy. It was incredible to see and photograph it and I left with more questions than answers.

Library Claire-Martin, Québec, QC

Library Claire-Martin, Québec, QC

Library Claire-Martin, Québec, QC

Library Claire-Martin, Québec, QC

We were happy to have visited these two remarkable libraries but at this point we needed to get some exercise. The Plains of Abraham were the site of one of the most important battles in 18th century North America. The British besieged the French here in Québec City and eventually won control of all French dominated Canada with profound repercussions for many centuries afterwards. The Citadel is the largest fort in North America. The walk along the high cliffs and the old Citadel were amazing in the sunset light. Later in the walk, we are inspired by the famous Hotel Frontenac in the Old City and depressed by the views of a cruise ship half the size of Québec City. Otherwise, the views were spectacular, the weather crisp but nice and the tourist crowds were minimal at this time of the year. We ended the evening at a hockey-themed creperie watching the Canadians destroy the American team while enjoying our delicious crepes and great local beer.



We got up early the next morning and headed back to the Old City. We went to the Morrin Center Library which use to be a prison in the early days. It later served as the home of Morrin CoIlege which was Québec City’s first English-language institute of higher education. It later became home to the Literary and Historical Society of Québec and is now the oldest subscription library in Canada and has become a center for English language and culture in Québec. Although only 4% of people in Québec are English-only speakers, many people come here to learn English. It had a famous statue of the British General Wolfe who defeated the French and wrested control of Canada for the British in 1759. This was not popular in this city of Québécois loyalty and in the 1970s a young Argentinian man threw a Molotov cocktail and burned part of the statue and library. Fortunately, the library survived and today it is an extraordinary place.

Morrin Center Library, Québec City, QC

by was the equally extraordinary library called the House of Literature (Maison de la littérature). It was in the former Methodist Wesley Temple in a large Gothic revival church constructed in 1848 that now contained a library, exhibition space, concert/lecture hall and a bistro. Next door was a new annex that was a center for literary creation. The library still contained the church’s tall leaded windows showing the vault at every level of the building. The interior was entirely white to magnify the natural light.

House of Literature, Québec City, QCHouse of Literature, Québec City, QC

After a great lunch at the hipster restaurant called Maelstrom, we went to the impressive Musée de la Civilization. This museum was funded, in part, by the power company Hydro-Québec and I wondered if it may have been an effort in green-washing. But inside the museum the section on the Native people of Québec seemed honest, hard-hitting and gut-wrenching. We were impressed by this display and, at the same time, aware of the controversial funding that made it possible.

We headed back to our place on the idyllic Ile d’Orléans in the middle of the St. Lawrence River. We stopped at a cider place overlooking the river and pondered the beauty of the place and the experiences of the day while sipping hard cider as the sun set.



Before we left Québec City, we made one last foyer into hipsterland by having a great coffee at Cantcook.


We then drove three hours to the town of Asbestos, QC. By its name, you can tell what they used to mine here. This area is in a vast mining area and is also in the heart of conservative-voting Québec as seen by the election signs everywhere. As we had seen before, the library used to be a church. Although the building was smaller than the Library Monique-Corriveau in Québec City, this one had a similar grandiose, sweeping steeple with a cross still on top. So much for the separation of church and state.

Our next stop was 1 ½ hours southwest in the fairly large Canadian city of Magog. The Library Memphrémagog was in a former church made out of high, gray stones with two massive steeples. This must have been an impressive church and it was now a very large, impressive library. There were few references inside to the religious origins except for the spectacular stain-glass windows and a small chapel off the children’s library.

The last library we visited was one that I had photographed before in 2005 for my American Public Library project. An image of the library is in my book The Public Library: A Photographic Essay. It is called the Haskell Free Library and Opera House and, incredibaly, it straddles the Canadian/American border in the little towns of Stanstead, QC and Derby Line, VT. I only had photographed the library exterior (which was closed at the time) on our earlier visit and I was curious to see the borderline that runs through the library. I asked the Border Patrol agent parked in his SUV in front of the library how do we enter the library since we were coming from Canada and the library’s front door was on the US side of the border. He said as long as we stayed on the sidewalk, we could enter the library. But he warned us not to cross the street or that would be an illegal border crossing and he would have to arrest us. Needless to say, we stayed on the sidewalk!

Haskell Free Library and Opera House, Stanstead, OC/ Derby Line, VT

Although I included this library as part of my earlier study of American public libraries, Ellen and I both felt this one was appropriate to include in our study of Canadian and even global libraries. The Haskell family built this library on the border as an early 20th century expression of international respect and cooperation. That seems quaint today in our era of tightened borders. I imagined that the Border Patrol found this place problematic. But I hope in the future, libraries could be placed upon political boundaries around the world as a way of building cooperation and promoting peace. What would a library look like on the border, say, between Palestine and Israel? Or Ukraine and Russia? Or even Mexico and the United States? I think that the Haskell’s were on to something that still resonates today.

After 18 years of photographing libraries throughout the US, I came away feeling that libraries are one of the things that help unite our currently divided United States. And I think that libraries can help do the same thing globally.


Now that we are back in Vermont, I will keep you updated on the rest of our journey. Until then…

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Toronto, Ottawa and Back in the USA

Toronto, Ottawa and Back in the USA 


Toronto is the most multiculturally diverse city in the world: over 140 languages are spoken here and over half of the city’s residents were born outside of Canada. Last night we celebrated this by going to a Mexican restaurant staffed by recent migrants from Mexico. This morning we went to the wonderful Pow Wow restaurant serving Native-American fusion food. Amazing food!


Getting back to work, our first stop was the superb Toronto Reference Library. It was pretty snazzy when built in the 1970s and it is still great today. Its giant atrium provides good views of all parts of the library and reminds me of a similar style of a library in Stuttgart, Germany that I photographed in 2016.

Toronto Public Library - Toronto Reference Library, Toronto

Toronto Public Library - Toronto Reference Library, Toronto

Toronto Public Library - Toronto Reference Library, Toronto

Toronto Public Library - Toronto Reference Library, TorontoToronto Public Library - Toronto Reference Library, Toronto

The Bloor-Gladstone branch library was located in a very diverse neighborhood that is trending towards hipster. The traditional Carnegie style library had wonderfully incorporated a new addition that was filled with afternoon light and people on computers. Like most libraries it was packed with people and the librarians have to gently kick everyone out at closing time.

Toronto Public Library - Bloor/Gladstone Branch, TorontoToronto Public Library - Bloor/Gladstone Branch, Toronto

Our last library was the Scarborough Civic Centre Library in a nearby suburb of Toronto. Our timing was good as the light was great on the library and the sparkling surrounding high-rise apartments. A group of African-Canadians dressed for a party were having a great time outside the closed library. It seemed that the diversity of this city really works as most everyone seems to get along.

Toronto Public Library - Scarborough Civic Centre Branch, Scarborough, ON

We ended our day at the Bluffs Park on Lake Ontario watching the glow of the sunset over a lake that looks like the sea. Literally everyone here was from South Asia or Africa. The easy-going vibe, the different styles of clothing and music people are dancing to helps me understand why this city is considered so attractive to migrants from all over the world. Diversity seems to work here.


Today was an easy-going drive of only five hours. I photographed an interesting looking library in upscale Perth, ON. It had a fascinating tower and canal outside the library.

But the main goal of today was the Library of Parliament in the capitol city of Ottawa. This building was undergoing a massive renovation and it was surrounded by fences and construction material. It was situated on a bluff next to the Canadian Parliament and looked over the confluence of two rivers. The soft sunset light and the harsh construction lights made for a rather striking scene. I spent some time in the one spot that I could try to capture it all. As we walked back to our car we go by the other side of Parliament and saw hundreds of people watching a massive light show on the front of this impressive structure.

Library of Parliament, Ottowa, ONLibrary of Parliament, Ottowa, ON



Our last day of driving took us from Ottawa to Montreal and then on to our little cabin in the woods in Vermont. As we were driving into Montreal, we got a text from our son Walker that we would be driving right by the French market called Marche Atwater which we had visited years ago when we got the best croissants ever. Of course, we screeched in amidst the construction, downpour and traffic and found a parking spot right in front. The croissants were still the best and it brightened up what could have been a long, slow slog-of-a-day. Thank You Walker!


Crossing back into the USA was quick and uneventful. Because it was Labor Day, we knew it might be hard to find a place for dinner. But our old favorite Sandy’s happened to be open and their classic veggie burgers were sublime. We stumbled through the dark to our cabin down a dirt road off a dirt road. It was very remote and we were astonished to find the family name on the dirt driveway to the cabin listed on our Prius navigation system. After driving 4,960 miles it was good to have a place to lay our heads down for more than one or two nights.


More later. Until then…



Filed under Uncategorized

Entering the Woods: Outback Ontario

Entering the Woods: Outback Ontario 


We continued our drive east. As we crossed the border of Ontario we entered the vast Boreal Forest of the Canadian Shield. Here the forest is huge, but the soil is thin, a result of the last glaciers that scraped the land clean. Approximately 50% of Ontario’s area is part of the Boreal Forest. It is sometimes called the Amazon of the North and, like the real Amazon, it is beginning to burn because of climate change. It is the world’s largest storehouse of carbon after Brazil. We stopped at a small pond and have a much-appreciated picnic of peanut butter sandwich with a side cup of coffee. I picked up a small piece of birch bark and marvel at its delicate beauty in the weird northern Canadian light.

We pulled into Thunder Bay, ON after another long drive. Just as we get to the edge of the city we spotted a library in a shopping mall. The light was beautiful and a security guard was just closing the doors to the mall. The pedestrians outside were a real mix of the city including bored shoppers with fidgety kids, a Muslim woman wearing a scarf and several desperate Indigenous people begging near the entrance. We later learned that there are several Native Reserves nearby and sometimes the relations between them and the city are tense.

We stayed at a renovated hotel which used to be City Hall. Our room had a spectacular view overlooking Thunder Bay and Lake Superior. We went to a nice restaurant near the yacht harbor and we talked about how different our perception of this area is from our son Walker’s view from a Greyhound bus two years ago.


Today is the first day since August 19th that I don’t photograph a library. We have another very long drive which takes us along the spectacular, wild northern shore of Lake Superior. The 9 ½ hour drive is slow going with heavy rains at times, two lanes and lots of trucks and construction. Music and podcasts continue to be our entertaining traveling companions. The literary highlight of the day was arriving at the tiny village of White River, ON. It contained a monument to Winnie the Pooh. The real Winnie came from here and was named after the city of Winnipeg. The young orphan bear was purchased from a trapper here by a Canadian solider on his way to Europe and WWI. The bear was later donated to the London Zoo where it became something of a celebrity. The real Christopher Robbins fell in love with the bear and his father, A.A. Milnes, wrote the famous tale about his son and the bear that became a classic of children’s literature.


We arrived exhausted after the day’s drive to the city of Sault Ste. Marie. The French name means the “Falls of St. Mary” but the falls are buried under a series of locks that connect Lakes Superior to Huron. We can see the US on the other side of the Canal but we aren’t ready to return just yet. When we get out of the car I am struck by a toxic, acrid smell from a nearby steel plant. Even an ensuing downpour doesn’t eliminate it but the smell gradually disappeared. I felt sorry for the residents of this industrial city and wondered about the condition of their lungs.



The next day we took an emotional road trip. Although I photographed the very nice library in Blind River, ON our real purpose was to make a pilgrimage to the place of the lyric of the Neil Young song “Long May You Run”. We watched the Blind River run as we listened to the song from our CD player.


We then headed to the city of Sudbury, ON which we had last visited on our honeymoon thirty-six years ago. We went there then because we were interested in the effects of mining on the landscape and Sudbury was the largest nickel producer in the world. Since the 1920s, it had been a toxic industrial wasteland of bleak black soil. So barren was the surrounding terrain that NASA came here to train in the 1960s. We continued our honeymoon beyond Sudbury to visit toxic waste sites throughout the American West. It was very romantic and we are still happily married. We re-visited the statue of the Big Nickel which is a giant stainless-steel replica of a 1951 Canadian nickel coin.

We photographed one rather nice-looking modern branch library on the edge of Sudbury. After another long drive, we arrived in the magical city of Toronto.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Canadian Prairie: Crossing That Awesome Space to Winnipeg, Manitoba

The Canadian Prairie: Crossing That Awesome Space to Winnipeg, Manitoba 


An unexpected surprise was meeting our friends Gregor and Maria from Poland. He is a performer for Cirque de Soilé and she is a librarian and scholar. They were traveling with Cirque throughout North America and they happened to be in Calgary now. We fell in love with their two adorable children Benedict and Maria while we had coffee in the library.

As we drive east, we really feel like we have entered the vast sea of grass and big skies of the Canadian prairies. The scale is humbling and hard to comprehend. But somehow it feels familiar and comforting after growing up in the vastness of the Sacramento Valley Today we stopped and photographed the libraries in the small towns of Brooks, Swift Current and Moose Jaw. The library in Brooks, Alberta works with a large Somali population that came here to work in the huge meat-packing plant on the edge of town. The library has many foreign-language books and the small town has many Africans walking the streets, some in their beautiful native clothing.

We are happy to enter the new province of Saskatchewan. There we photographed the Chinook Regional Library in Swift Current. The town is exceptional in its austerity and its library shows that in its beautiful but severe architecture. Moose Jaw has an exceptional name and is a welcome island in a prairie sea. The gangster Al Capone used this as a haven for his whiskey smuggling operation into the United States during Prohibition. During this time, the town approached Andrew Carnegie for a $50,000 grant to build their library. He didn’t believe their town population numbers and refused the request. The city then raised its own money and built their beautiful library for $100,000. Take that, Mr. Carnegie!


Our new Prius is working well but we realize that there are many things we need to learn about our new computer-with-wheels. One surprise was a sign that popped up on the dash that said I should get a cup of coffee because I was swerving too much. The whole trip we have been trying to live in the Eco-Zone!

Fortunately, we pulled into Regina, Saskatchewan after a long day’s drive before the car could take over and tell us to go to bed.


Today we follow our son Walker’s orders and drive 4 ½ hours north of Regina to the tiny, mostly Native community of Duck Lake, SK. We drive through several cells of torrential downpours into brilliant but sometimes cloudy skies.

Duck Lake is the site of a great 19th century battle between Metis (mixed race Native-White) people and Canadian militias. It was the start of the uprising called the Northwest Rebellion. The old Victoria school is now the Wapiti Public Library. On the side is a great mural to the Native man called Almighty Voice. Through a series of tragic events he was eventually killed by government troops for killing a cow. Duck Lake is also the site of one of the last government schools for Indigenous children that only closed in 1996. These schools were one of the darker chapters of Canadian westward expansion. Native children were taken away from their parents and were forced to abandon their Native culture. They were forbidden to speak their own language and were forced to learn how to read and write in English. They were often shunned or disowned by their families when they eventually returned. This tragedy was played out in the US as well with terrible consequences. It also brings up uncomfortable questions for our project where we have always championed education. In Duck Lake the school probably had good intentions. But here education and literacy became a form of cultural genocide rather than a source of hope and a way out to a better future. Lots to learn from the Native people of Canada!

We spent the night in the northern city of Saskatoon, SK. I fell in love with the tidy small bungalows and tree-lined streets of this city. However, our motel seemed seedy (and cheap!) and I think the immediate surrounding area was run by Vietnamese mafia. The restaurant where we had dinner was delightful and our waitress identifies herself as a modern Mennonite. There are plenty of traditional Mennonites living here and in Manitoba. They are part of the vast web of religious diversity in this country.


We visited two libraries today. The first was in a strip mall in the tiny town of Lanigan, SK. It was not pretty or historically interesting but was pretty typical of small-town Canadian libraries. The other was in the larger town of Yorkton. The architecture was brutalist and didn’t even have windows. As sad as the building was, I was still glad that there was a library in this remote prairie town. As was true of most Canadian libraries that we visited, this one was filled with people.

But most of today was spent enjoying the beautiful Canadian landscape. In between the cloud bursts and brilliant sunshine, we saw several dazzling banded rainbows. We are driving through an area settled by many Ukrainian people. As we come to the crest of a hill near the small village of Insinger, we see the beautiful spires of a tiny Ukrainian Orthodox Church. It reminds us of our 2016 trip to Ukraine and I admired the strength and courage of the people that made that long and difficult journey from there to here.

We are also inspired by the music of some great Canadian musicians including Neil Young, the McGarrigle Sisters and especially Leonard Cohen. Poetry, prairies, podcasts and pounding rain accompany us throughout the day. After a very long day we arrived in the capitol of Manitoba – Winnipeg. It has a violent reputation and is called the murder capital of Canada. Parts of it are pretty dicey but not the neighborhood where we spend two nights called the Forks.



The Millennium Centennial Library of Winnipeg is located in the City Center. It is both beautiful and a well- run library. It has two social workers on staff to deal with people experiencing hard times. It had an Indigenous People’s Center, an Idea Mill (Maker Space) and is the hometown library of Winnie the Pooh.

We visited St. John’s Branch Library which is located in the most dangerous part of Winnipeg. The building was an old Carnegie Library had a really nice new addition. This seemed to be the kind of library that would really make a difference in this difficult place. One librarian was Ukrainian and had worked as a librarian there. In the basement was an amazing exhibit on the tragic Indian Residential Schools of Canada.

We also visited the incredible the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. It told a big story throughout the world but we we only had time to focus on the Canadian Indigenous People and the Residential Schools.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Trans-Canadian Highway: The Far West to Calgary, Alberta

The Trans-Canadian Highway: The Far West to Calgary, Alberta


We left Vancouver early the morning in the pouring rain and gridlocked traffic. Although I really liked Vancouver, it felt good to get beyond the city and start east on the Trans-Canadian Highway. We drove on to the Stó: lõ Research and Resource Management Centre in Chilliwack, British Colombia. This community center contained a small but important library and archive. It was also a positive expression of Native culture that is in the process of reinventing itself. This Library and Centre was part of the effort for the local Indigenous people to connect with their past and to build a better future. Our friend Dionne from Vancouver works with this group on fisheries issues.

Stó:lō Research and Resource Centre, Chilliwack, BC

Stó:lō Research and Resource Centre, Chilliwack, BC

Stó:lō Research and Resource Centre, Chilliwack, BC

Stó:lō Research and Resource Centre, Chilliwack, BC

Stó:lō Research and Resource Centre, Chilliwack, BC

Stó:lō Research and Resource Centre, Chilliwack, BC

Stó:lō Research and Resource Centre, Chilliwack, BC

Stó:lō Research and Resource Centre, Chilliwack, BC

The sky was low and dark as we drove east into the Kamloops Mountains. Ellen and I had never driven all the way through the Canadian Rockies and we found them to be stunning. We stopped briefly to photograph the small South Schuwap Branch Library. While sitting in the car a wild-eyed man came running out of a store, noticed our California license plate and demanded to know if we supported President Trump. I explained to him that we hated Trump and he pretended to shout back to the store that it was safe to come out because we weren’t Trumpers. We found the same reaction to our president in Europe and it is safe to say that he is the most unpopular man in the world. Four hours after leaving Chilliwack we arrived in the year-round resort town of Revelstoke.


The next day we began our drive through the High Rockies and we finally entered Baniff National Park. All the rivers had been flowing west but as we crossed the Continental Divide everything shifted and the waters of the Canadian West headed east. As we were crossing the Divide we were listening to the sublime CD “Bad Lego Man” by our friend and contractor George Crampton. The hours and kilometers slipped by as Ellen and I both exclaimed a lot of “Wows” and Look at thats”. We finally came out of the mountains and into the great Canadian prairie. We will remain in this vast landform until we reach the boreal forests of Ontario.

Calgary, Alberta is like the Houston of Canada. Cowboys and oil money mix here in a vibrant and exciting city. The Central Library is world-class and has recently been listed as one of the best libraries in the world by Time Magazine and the New York Times. I photographed the outside at dusk as the lights came on and a gathering storm grew darker and darker. The rain finally came crashing down in a flood just as I jumped back into the car. But I think the photos that I made were worth it.



We went back to the Calgary Central Library and were given a first-class tour of this exceptional place. This is one of the most intelligently put together libraries I have ever seen. They certainly have learned from what works and doesn’t work in libraries from all over. It is an exceptional community center that responds to the needs of this city. And it was, of course, filled with people – young parents with excited kids, scholars, students, homeless, tourists and people walking through studying the library itself.

Central Library, Calgary, AB

Central Library, Calgary, AB

Central Library, Calgary, AB

Central Library, Calgary, AB

Central Library, Calgary, AB

Central Library, Calgary, AB

Central Library, Calgary, AB

Central Library, Calgary, AB


Central Library, Calgary, AB

Central Library, Calgary, AB

Central Library, Calgary, AB

Central Library, Calgary, AB

Central Library, Calgary, AB

Central Library, Calgary, AB

Central Library, Calgary, AB

Central Library, Calgary, AB

After spending most of the day here I felt happy like a kid in a candy store. We headed over to the Memorial Park Library as the sky was darkening again with another storm. This was the oldest library in Alberta and was one of the libraries built by Andrew Carnegie. This beautiful building contained a Pride display, several Indigenous language books and an interesting musical instrument lending library. The deluge came as I hurriedly photographed the exterior of the library. We grabbed a dinner at a wonderful Calgary Mexican restaurant and sat at the window and watched the rain fall. I really enjoyed my Canadian tacos! Back at our hotel as I was later downloading my images from this productive day, I fell asleep. We have been running pretty non-stop since we left San Francisco and I guess it finally caught up with me.

Memorial Park Branch Library, Calgary, AB

Memorial Park Branch Library, Calgary, AB



Filed under Uncategorized

North to Vancouver, and then East…

My apologies for not posting this earlier. It turns out I could drive, photograph, edit the images and write the blog during our two-week journey across Canada. But at the end of many long days I wasn’t able to put it all together and post it. I now have the time to assemble the pieces and I will begin to send these out on a regular basis.


North to Vancouver, and then East…


Ellen and I started our Canadian Library Road Trip by driving nine hours straight to the edge of Eugene, OR in our new Prius. Northern California was absolutely beautiful despite the 104-degree temperature outside. Mt. Shasta was stunning against the brilliant blue sky. Even in August, the higher reaches were still blanketed with snow after our heavy snowfall winter. California was able to dodge the bullet of drought this year as the slow Sierrian snow melt keeps our rivers full. Even the mighty Sacramento River was brimming with water as we crossed over it near Redding.

One of the great benefits of living in the digital era is the invention of the podcast. Some of our favorites include The Daily, FiveThirtyEight Politics, The NPR Politics Podcast, Pod Save America, The Argument and Up First. I think you can see a theme developing here. Our son Walker helped develop some of this list. Please send us your suggestions as well. We are all ears.



After a quick visit with our friends Kenny and Margo Helfhand, we had to make a stop at one-of-the-greatest-bookstores in the world – Powell’s Books in Portland, OR.  We continued on and finally arrived in Seattle to stay with our friends Peter de Lory and Kay Kirkpatrick. Peter is an old friend and great photographer. Kay is a public librarian by day and a wonderful public artist the rest of the time. Their wonderful house was filled with books and photographs. Of course, we felt instantly at home in their cozy house.


Our trek continued north to that wonderful country with great healthcare called Canada. We just made it in time to our first appointment at the Central Library of Vancouver. This is considered one of the great libraries in Canada and is featured in many books as one of the great libraries of the world. We were given a fascinating tour by a young librarian who showed us every part of the library. We were exhausted at the end because there was so much to see and absorb.

Central Library, Vancouver, BC

Central Library, Vancouver, BCCentral Library, Vancouver, BC

IMG_1562Lightroom (DSC_4789.NEF and 1 other)

We ended our day by staying with one of my former Stanford students Dionne who lives in West Vancouver. An added treat and a great birthday present was meeting her parents again who were visiting from India. Bunny and Vickti live in Mumbai and he is a retired pilot for Air India.


The next morning, we made a beeline back to Vancouver. Our destination was the néća?mat.ct Strathcona Branch Library. It was located in the East Hastings area of East Vancouver which has been called one of the poorest postal codes in all of Canada. Like our home of San Francisco, as Vancouver has boomed the widening income gap has displaced many people and swelled the ranks of the homeless. Even coming from San Francisco, we were astonished by the number of people living on the sidewalk. The area felt very chaotic and we found out later that it was considered a very dangerous place. Fortunately, we found a parking spot right in front of the library. The librarian explained that the neighborhood desperately needed a library and it opened two years ago. It was obvious that it was well used and well loved. The Native American name of the library was an effort to provide hope and pride to the Native population. Tragically, a large percentage of Vancouver’s homeless population are First Nation people. This place is an example of a library as healing.

Strathcone Branch Library, Vancouver, BCStrathcone Branch Library, Vancouver, BC

We spent the rest of the afternoon at the University of British Colombia’s Museum of Anthropology. This contains one of the world’s finest collection of Native American art and artifacts. Ellen and I had recently spent some time during our Fulbright in Greece, Italy and Israel going to see extraordinary museums and collections. But we were entranced by the collections at this museum. I began to see the importance of the Indigenous culture to our understanding of Canada. We hoped to see more of it as we visit libraries across Canada.






Filed under Uncategorized

A New Library Road Trip!

A New Library Road Trip!


Welcome back to a new Library Road Trip. We decided to visit that exotic country to the north with good health care called Canada. Coming off our 2018-2019 Fulbright Library Road Trip to Greece, Italy and Israel we now want to explore the libraries of a foreign country in the Western Hemisphere. We will start on August 17 by driving up to Vancouver, BC and then make the long trek east across the Canadian Rockies and prairies to Montreal. We will examine libraries in such beautifully named places such as Swift Current, Moose Jaw, Thunder Bay and Blind River. We look forward to seeing how Canadians do libraries in their vast, multi-cultural, multi-lingual country. We will then stay in our little cabin in the woods in Vermont for a month and hopefully make a drive up to Quebec City to photograph their amazing libraries as well. Finally, we will drive back through the South and arrive in California at the beginning of November.

Since my last blog in March Ellen and I have been taking care of all the things that didn’t get done during our six-month Fulbright Fellowship. I also have been trying to edit the 21,000+ images made during the Fulbright. In conjunction with Marquand Editions we produced 15 limited-edition, hand-made books from my earlier American Public Library project called Public Library: An American Commons. It contains 50 original prints with letter-press text and post-binding so the prints can also be taken out and displayed. The album is inspired by the earlier work of Lee Friedlander and the great 19th Century American Western survey project albums. It is a new version of the project drawn from that vast well of images that I made of American public libraries over 18 years. It is nice to finally see this idea in a finished form. Please contact us if you have any questions or would like to purchase the album.

Limited-edition book by Robert Dawson

_ copy

L|M book


Ellen, Walker and I schlepped the album down to southern California where I gave a lecture for the Book Club of California and showed the album and prints to the Huntington Museum, the Getty Museum and the Center for Photographic Art in San Diego. After that, our son Walker gave us a tour of Tijuana where he had spent a lot of time working on his graduate thesis film Credible Fear. This included going to where the Border Wall goes into the sea.

By the way, Walker graduated from the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley in May on a very wet day. We are very proud of him!

The present and future of journalism, UC Berkeley

As the bullets continue to fly across our nation it seems like a good time to go somewhere else. Like our European Library Road Trip, we will periodically send you notes and photographs from the field. The best part of our 2018-2019 Fulbright trip were your comments and suggestions. Keep them coming! Stay tuned and stay safe…


Filed under Uncategorized

Straight Outta Tel Aviv!



Straight Outta Tel Aviv! 

Our 15-hour flight flew straight from Tel Aviv to San Francisco, non-stop. Surprisingly, the trip wasn’t as much of an ordeal as I expected. The eight-hour sleep along the way helped (thank you Ambien!). Between the two of us, Ellen and I only binged on watching five films during the trip which also helped.

Our last week in this part of the world was also non-stop and consequential. Because it was Saturday and most things were closed we decided to walk to the Old City and East Jerusalem. Along the Via Dolorosa we came upon the ancient Church of Saint Anne. The austere stone interior and extraordinary acoustics made it a fine example of medieval architecture. It was a fascinating place with holy sites built on top of each other going back to pre-Roman times. A Crusader church was built here on top of a Byzantine basilica which had been built on top of the Pools of Bethesda. The Crusaders thought this was the home of the Virgin Mary and the site of her birthplace. Here we saw a group of African-Americans sitting in a semi-circle signing beautiful hymns. We also saw a group of Russian pilgrims led by a priest with a long beard in Orthodox robes. It was a haunting and impressive place.

We then walked a few hundred yards to the foot of the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane. This is where Christians believe Christ underwent his agony in the garden and was arrested the night before his crucifixion. The garden today contains several olive trees that are the oldest known to science. They have been carbon dated to at least 1,000 years old. They may be descended from trees dating back to the time of Christ. They certainly seemed ancient and were completely surrounded by a high fence to protect them from those darn pilgrims that want to break off a branch to take as a souvenir. Large groups of pilgrims came through while we visited. They seemed to mostly come from China, the Philippines and Russia. It was remarkable to be here and I understood why people come from all over the world to be in the presence of these extraordinary trees and stand in this sacred site.


We hiked up the Mount of Olives through various Palestinian olive groves. We could see how they were being squeezed out by new Israeli housing. It also contained a vast necropolis of Jewish grave sites. The mount had been used as a Jewish cemetery for over 3,000 years and had also been a site of Christian worship since ancient times. Recent tensions have arisen here because of vandalism of the Jewish grave sites. The conflict between Jews, Christians and Muslims is partly played out here. As we reached an open space near the top I made an image with my iPhone showing a panorama of Jerusalem. It showed the cemetery on the left, the Muslim Dome of the Rock in the center and a wall with barbed wire on the right. It was all under a gorgeous sunset which made this landscape of conflict even more striking and sad.


The next morning we took a long bus ride through the working-class neighborhoods of southern Jerusalem.  We arrived at the office of Mr. Machon Ott, the Torah Doctor. I realized last week while we were photographing at the Special Collections Department at the National Library of Israel that I had not photographed any Torahs while we had been here in Israel. The Library said that they didn’t have much of a collection and recommended that we visit Mr. Ott. He is the son of Holocaust survivors and possessed an intensity of spirit but also a warm, engaging personality that was delightful. He showed us the many Torahs that he had repaired. He told us many stories including one of a German Jewish WWI vet who lost a leg in the war and received an Iron Cross for his bravery. Thinking his war hero status would protect him from the Nazis he stayed in Germany and was eventually sent to a concentration camp. He was protecting a sacred Torah and hid it by using it to replace his wooden leg. Somehow, he survived the war and later moved to Israel. Mr. Ott showed us a picture of the veteran in his WWI uniform and then he showed a photo of the vet’s great grandson carrying the same Torah at the boy’s bar mitzvah. Needless to say, we were very moved.

The Torah Doctor, Jerusalem

We then headed off again to East Jerusalem. After a great lunch in an Arab café filled with women in hijabs we went to the Central Library of East Jerusalem. This is a library for the Arab speaking part of the City. Initially it had been difficult to get funding to get it built. In 1985 the popular Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek set aside money from a peace prize he received from the German Publishers Association toward construction of the new facility. With additional help from the Jerusalem Foundation it opened in 1992 and had 20,000 books that were available to Jerusalem residents and Arabic speakers from all over Israel. It survived a terrorist bombing in 1993 and was thriving the day we visited.

Central Library, East JerusalemCentral Library, East JerusalemCentral Library, East Jerusalem

Central Library, East JerusalemCentral Library, East Jerusalem

There is a saying that there is no rest for the weary. To prove that point, we took a bus the next day to Tel Aviv. I had been trying to photograph the Yitzhak Rabin Center since we arrived in Israel. On this day we received a four-hour private tour of this amazing place dedicated to the memory of the former Prime Minister. We saw much, asked a lot of questions and had the unusual access to photograph Rabin’s private library that was set up exactly as it had been on the day he was assassinated. His murder by a right-wing, ultra-Orthodox nut job changed the course of Israeli history. It helped to usher in the current right-wing government that depends on conservative religious parties to stay in power. The Center also depicts the last 130 years of Jewish and Israeli history from a progressive, Jewish perspective.

We picked up a cab from a driver who was a spitting image of Dennis Hopper from the Apocalypse Now period. He had the same stoner looks, speech and mannerisms along with the greasy long hair. Surprisingly, he was the only person that we met on this whole Fulbright odyssey that liked Trump. He was actually a great character and drove us to the city of Jaffa (or Yafo, depending on who is doing the spelling). This is the ancient city and port that feels more Arab and has a different vibe than neighboring Tel Aviv. In a poor part of the Old City was an Arab-Jewish Community Center that contained a library. The Center and Library were relatively new and it was nice to see the government putting money into helping this poor area in the Arab section of town. The library contained many Arabic language books. I was somewhat surprised to see a children’s book in the Library by Lynn Cheney but I think at this point we had become a little jaded.

Library, Tel Aviv-Yaffo Community Center, Tel Aviv-Yaffo

We then hopped back into the taxi with Mr. Stoner and headed back to Tel Aviv to another memorial of sorts. Our friend and former Stanford colleague Joel Leivick long ago told me about his grandfather who was a famous Yiddish poet. There was a Leivick House established in Tel Aviv in the 1970s in his honor for writers and poets and this was where we briefly visited.


We ended the evening having dinner with our Fulbright colleague and now friend Noa Turgeman. She was the first person we met when we landed in Israel two months ago and she really impressed us then. She had done great work for us by helping to coordinate our Fulbright work in Israel. She will be missed along with several other new friends we have made over our time here. After dinner, we took the bus back to Jerusalem that night and I had to stand on the crowded bus for the hour-long ride. Again, no rest for the weary.

rob and ellen

Speaking of no rest, we then got up at the crack o’ dawn and took a very long bus ride to Bethlehem. We had been told that we shouldn’t go into the West Bank because of the danger but felt that on this last day of my photography we should visit some libraries in Palestine. We hired a wonderful driver named Alaa’a who drove us to the cities of Al-Bireh and Nablus. Alaa’a was a chatterbox and an intense Palestinian nationalist. He was also the “official driver” for the artist Banksky’s famous Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem that we had visited earlier on this trip.

It was good to get the Palestinian perspective on the situation in Palestine. Alaa’a pointed out the Israeli settlements all over the West Bank. He showed us the Israeli Army working hand in hand with the settlers; the check points; the long and circuitous roads Palestinians must use and; of course, the never-ending Wall. Most of all he expressed the indignity that many Palestinians felt under occupation of their own country. As long and hard as it had been to achieve, the only answer seemed to be a two-state solution. Israeli policy seemed driven by fear and frustration and Netanyahu seemed to have expertly exploited that for his own political gain. I fear that the West Bank will blow up again someday and I was hoping it wouldn’t occur on the day we were there.

One very welcome counter-point to this gloomy picture was the Al-Bireh Public Library. Al-Bireh and neighboring Ramallah are basically one big city. Ramallah is the de facto capitol of Palestine and gets more attention. But Al-Bireh was larger and much older. We were greeted by the very well organized and professional staff of the library. Many people in Al-Bireh have lived in the United States including our main guide who lived for many years in Colorado. We got a grand tour of the new and very nice library and community center. Although the library has only six employees, it maintains six-days-a-week service. The history of the Al-Bireh Public Library is entwined with that of Palestinian resistance. In the past it has been hard for them to get books because of Israeli law. Even though they are struggling I felt this was an impressive, important and extremely well-run place.

After an hour-long drive north through the heart of the West Bank we arrived at the beautiful and fascinating city of Nablus. This city has been around since Roman times. The Roman name Flavia Neapolis (New City) was later pronounced by the Arabs as Nablus. It has been a hotbed of Palestinian activism not least because the surrounding hills are occupied by some of the West Bank’s most hard-core Israeli settlers. The Nablus Library was the oldest and largest public library in the West Bank. It was started with aid from the Jordanian government in the 1960s. It was housed in a 19th century Ottoman-era structure. Its collections included the Prisoner’s Section which was an archive of materials made and used by Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails between 1975 and 1995 as part of a Palestinian self-education movement.

Nablus Public Library, Nablus, Palestine

When we arrived at the library we met the director. Through an interpreter we learned that he planned for us to visit the Mayor of Nablus at that moment. I explained to him that we only had one hour left before the library closed.  I asked if we could meet with the Mayor after that hour but he was adamant and kept repeating that “the Mayor is waiting.” I realized this was the last library of our six-month Fulbright project and it may be a bust. I also realized we were walking a fine line here and I feared this could escalate into something of an international incident. After further pleading for a few minutes to photograph before we ran off to the Mayor I literally sprinted around the library photographing whatever I could on the fly. Fortunately, I made what I think were a few good images.

Nablus Public Library, Nablus, PalestineIMG_0502 copy

We then walked 20 minutes to the Mayor’s office with a guide who spoke no English. Ellen snapped this photo along the way.


When we arrived, of course, the Mayor was busy and kept us waiting for at least an hour. We had a wonderful chat with his younger assistant who spoke excellent English and told us all about Nablus. I began to feel that the Mayor didn’t really care about meeting us one way or another. I also thought the library director did this as a way of making himself look good to the Mayor. I have no idea of what the pressures of life must be like under an occupation but I really couldn’t understand the unprofessional actions of the Nablus library director. The last picture of the project was of us standing with the Mayor in front of large portraits of Mahmoud Abbas, the current Palestinian leader and Yasser Arafat, the former leader of Fatah and of Palestine. Abbas is considered corrupt by many Palestinians and Arafat is considered a terrorist by many Israelis and some Americans. Others consider Abbas is in a tough situation with an asymmetrical relationship with Israel. And others consider Arafat a great leader and a Nobel Peace Prize winner for signing the Oslo Peace Agreement. It all seemed quite surreal but a fascinating ending to a fascinating journey.

_ copy

As we took the long drive home through West Bank to Bethlehem we drove past many reminders of the current crisis in this part of the world. Alaa’a finally dropped us off to take a bus for the final leg of our journey into Jerusalem. Even though he has lived here his whole life he can’t drive into Jerusalem because he doesn’t have the right papers. At the border the bus stopped and all the passengers under 50 had to go outside into the freezing cold to have their passports inspected. After the machine gun toting Israeli guards inspect our passports and the under-50s are allowed back on the bus, we drive through the check point into the night and back to Jerusalem.


As with Greece and Italy, we found it difficult to leave Israel and Jerusalem. I have found this city hard to love but also found it one of the most fascinating places we have visited on a trip full of fascinating places. We were honored to have had the opportunity to get to know it and hope to come back many more times.

We spent our last full day shopping for gifts in the windy and freezing rain. I photographed Ellen with a broken umbrella in front of a trolley stop with Israeli soldiers carrying the ever-present machine guns.


On our last day we take a cab to the Ben Gurion airport and it starts to hail heavily. I remember the first time we drove into Jerusalem it snowed that night. That was the beginning of our Walk on the Wild Side. Abruptly the storm ended, the clouds parted and we saw the most beautiful sunset. At the airport Ellen photographed me with six-months-worth of luggage heading to the plane that will take us back to the City where we had left our hearts.

I have enjoyed doing this blog and I have heard that many of you have enjoyed it too. It certainly helped me to focus my thoughts and it also acted as a public diary of our trip. With so much happening over the last six months I am sure I would forget much of it without writing the blog. I will now have some time to make sense of this Fulbright odyssey and hope to continue an occasional blog with any insights I may discover. Thanks for sharing this remarkable journey with us. Until then…

Back to the Cool Gray City of Love.
















Filed under Uncategorized