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A Korean de Tocqueville, and rediscovering my own back yard

I’ve been home – which is to say in the northeastern United States, if not in Berkshire County – since June 19th. That’s a long stretch for me – long enough that I’ve gotten to watch World Cup games with friends, do some repairs on my house, pay a call on the Berkman Center… and file receipts and trip reports for the nine trips I took in six weeks in May and June.

I hit the road again on Monday, to DC for a day, and then to Seoul for the OhMyNews Citizen Journalism forum, where I’ll be speaking about Global Voices and meeting lots of cool folks working in the new world of citizen’s media. The trip would be exciting even if I didn’t know anyone at the conference. The fact that I get to meet Oiwan Lam, Preetam Rai and John Kennedy – all GV editors – face to face for the first time means I’m basically jumping up and down with impatience to get on the airplane.

I’m also looking forward to getting to know my Korean hosts better. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting OhMyNews founder Oh Yeon-Ho and the editor of OhMyNews International, Todd Thacker, at several conferences. And at the recent Netsquared conference (one of the aformentioned nine trips), I had the pleasure of sharing the stage with Euntaek Hong, the editor in chief of OhMyNews.

To get some background on Euntaek, I started reading the book chapters he wrote while travelling around “blue America” – the parts of our country you’re less likely to see from airplanes and meetings in major cities. Euntaek travelled from Columbia, Missouri throughout the American “heartland”, reporting as went, and produced a remarkable set of essays, titled “Finding Blue America”. Published as a book in Korean, the essays are available in English on the OhMyNews site and should be required reading for anyone interested in the question of how America is percieved by people from other nations.

The first paragraph of Euntaek’s introductory essay helps me understand just how neccesarily complex a Korean view of the US will be:

“Gimme a dollar.”

This was the first English sentence I spoke. When I went to elementary school, middle schoolers in my neighborhood taught me how to salute American soldiers. “If you say ‘Gimme one dollar,’ soldiers will give you money.” “Why?” “Because it pleases them. It means ‘how are you.'” While I didn’t notice that they made fun of me, I grabbed the barbed wire fence which divided the American military base from us, shouting at passing G.I.s, “Gimme one dollar.”

His introduction goes on to talk about Korea’s perspective on America – “fear and yearning” – and his personal exposure to reporting on America, as a correspondent in Kuwait covering the US invasion of Iraq and as a journalism student in Missouri. It’s a great frame for a set of essays that that reflect on the decay of Detroit, the “myth of Walmart”, and Texan toughness. It’s a crime that the book hasn’t been published in the US yet – what we need right now is a dozen de Tocquevilles like Euntaek Hong.

Reading these essays has encouraged me to take a closer look at the place I live, something I tried to do a few July 4ths ago with photos. Yesterday, Rachel and I walked down the mile-long main street – North Street – of Pittsfield, MA, the seat of our county and the next town south from our house.

Pittsfield can be a tough town to love. I remember passing through Pittsfield on the bus that took college students from Williamstown to New York City, heading home for Christmas vacation – one of my classmates, a lifelong New Yorker, leaned over and said, “My greatest fear is that I’ll end up stuck in a place like this”. On another bus ride, I watched a teenage kid – clearly living out the opening of the Guns N’ Roses “Welcome to the Jungle” video in his head – kiss his girlfriend goodbye, sling his duffel over his shoulder, and pause on the top step of the bus to yell “Fuck you, Pittsfield!” before slouching into his seat.

Pittsfield’s peak was in the 1950s and 60s when GE ran huge plants producing plastics and electric transformers in the center of town. Those plants are largely empty now, and many of the “brownfields” left behind are contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), toxic chemicals used to keep coolant oils used in transformers from boiling off. With GE pulling out of town, and other manufacturers reluctant to redevelop these properties, the population of the town has dropped by almost a third since its peak around 1970. A popular t-shirt sold at “Pipe and Pack” on North Street in the ’90s read “Last one out of Pittsfield, please turn out the lights.”

The Pittsfield I usually see from my truck is a city on the decline – empty storefronts, tattoo parlors and junk stores. Which is why it’s useful to get out and take a walk. Rachel and I stumbled onto an art gallery that listed its location as “Pittsfield, Lenox, Reykjavik”, two new burrito joints and a beautiful new restaurant that had taken over an old department store after a rumored $2m renovation. After walking past two wifi-enabled cafes, a Brazilian grocery store and a rare book store, and I’m embarassed that I spend too much of my home time in the perpetually pretty college town to my north and not enough in the funky and changing city to the south.

One of the attempts to change Pittsfield is an effort to recognize its role in the history of baseball. Nearly every other storefront we passed made cryptic reference to “1791”. The date is a reference to a document discovered in 2004 that makes reference to the game, a 1791 Pittsfield bylaw that prohibits anyone from playing baseball within 80 yards of the city’s new meeting house. This reference is significantly earlier than 1839, when Abner Doubleday is said to have codified rules of the game based on playing the sport near Cooperstown, NY. The Doubleday legend has helped cement Cooperstown’s claim as the historic home of baseball, hosting baseball’s Hall of Fame.

Whether the 1791 document will help revive baseball in Pittsfield is an open question. Jim Bouton, a former major league pitcher best known for his tell-all journal of his 1969 season with the Seattle Pilots, “Ball Four”, tried to rescue Pittsfield’s historic Waconah Park, but was thwarted by local politics. The stadium – a beautifully creaky wooden grandstand in use since 1919 – hosted minor league ball for decades, and now hosts the Pittsfield Dukes of the New England Collegiate League. With a two-month long season and another league team as close as North Adams, the Dukes are hardly a major draw… but they’re a hopeful sign, just like the 1791 signs, Brazillian groceries and Icelandic paintings.