Thursday, August 23, 2007

Pandora; The Slow Death of Amoskeag

    I haven’t taken as many pictures lately. I realize this as I return from the pharmacy with my “newest” roll of black and whites, one that I found, finished in my camera, while cleaning a few days ago. Flipping through the photos, placing them in the new album that I have just bought, I see pictures from my sister’s trip to visit last March, followed by pictures of birds, depictions of a feathered power-struggle in a parking lot, that I can’t clearly remember taking. I used to take two rolls a week; I knew the photo-tech at my old pharmacy by name. Now I find myself having to start a fresh album with the new shots and a small pile of the next most recent that had been loitering the last year upon my desk. The final stills in the last book were taken in January of 2004, not long after I moved to Phoenix, but now quite a while since.

    On a rare bright day prior to taking my leave of my native Manchester, New Hampshire, I hoisted my bicycle onto my shoulder and vaulted down the creaking, swaying wooden stairs of my studio apartment, to afford myself a break from the claustrophobic early-summer smells of packing boxes and washing dishes. I had my mind on my ritualistic mill run; a quick shot down the hill from my home, blurring past Victorian houses in Victorian colors, creams and yellows and chocolate browns, through the bustle of Elm Street, then dipping again to a meditative maze-course between parallel corridors of brick and the soothing rush of the Merrimack River. The crisp wind off of the still-icy-cold water spun through the tunnels of the paternal mill buildings, which patiently stood and guided the course as the wind and I raced each other to our common destination of nowhere in particular.

    I passed by contemplating the juxtaposition between the restored edifices, now housing drinking establishments, boutiques, and offices, and the decaying piles of brick, forgotten and left to crumble, as reminders that Manchester is a working city. They still bore the same shape, structure, and style, and stood one beside the next, as if oblivious or secretly proud of their harshly contradicting neighbors, as every family has that one black sheep, that uncle who laughs too loudly at inappropriate times and plugs away at nothing, yet bears an uncannily embarrassing resemblance to his well-behaved business-mogul brothers.


“Hope sole remain’d within, nor took her flight,
Beneath the vessel’s verge concealed from light.”


    I passed by Morgan’s Storage, several floors of which housed the practice studios of many of Manchester’s working bands, a different clang and clatter erupting from each brick window that I passed below. Milly’s Tavern, a frequent “home venue” for those clanging and clattering bands, slid by me on my descent to the river, as well as several coffeehouses and two empty but open buildings known vaguely to skateboarders as “the mills”, the sounds of people softly talking, the sounds of shoes on brick, and the sounds of skateboard wheels in empty hallways bouncing and echoing between buildings, streets, and sky, trying to catch me, as I coasted, soundless, by. I watched the familiar struggle and heard the familiar splash of the kayakers battling the downtown rapids just below the park. I had often noted that a bicycle along this pathway and a boat upon the river slid by, in most seasons, naturally side by side. I caught the kayaker’s pace, and felt at peace, knowing that I moved with the tempo of the current that I rode beside.

    A few blocks more and I was compelled to dismount and pause, however. Upon the ground in front of me, leaning on a mill which was in one of the varying stages of disrepair, that housed, to my perception, nothing at the time, was a set of two-story high backward cursive letters spelling “Pandora”, with directly below them, the smaller, blocky backward letters of the word “SWEATERS”. More exactly, the word facing the wall currently read “ WEAT R ”, but I and most of the city knew well what it had once clearly spelled.

    I quickly slid a camera from the small pack on my back and begin shooting pictures. I was not really contemplating this sight at first, only knowing from impulse or insight that this was a vision that I needed to preserve for myself. As I played with the light of the afternoon reflecting off of the stark white letters and the contrast of textures between the harsh brick behind and the decaying warmth of the rusted metal sign’s now useless support structure, my thoughts began to spin imagery of the sign, my city, my future, and play them all together, spinning the forlorn, realizing what was changing, what was bound to stay startlingly the same, between them all.

    For as long as anyone that I could think of in town would be able to remember, the block of building on which this sign now leaned had proudly announced “Pandora SWEATERS” in stately cursive to Manchester’s residents and travelers alike. To most of us who had absorbed the city as a feeling and the well-known sights contained therein as drops of water in the flow of the encompassing mood of the place, drops that formed the currents of the river that had built the town, the Pandora sign was one of the thousands of tiny elements that we seldom thought about, but completely understood.

    The sign had stood in a somewhat dilapidated state high above Canal and Commercial streets on the building that was, at the beginning of the industrial revolution, the crown jewel of the Amoskeag Textile Mills, that one chosen building that each mill-yard had that was privileged enough to hold the coveted clock-tower; this sign proving a weathered, working-class advertisement of a history that I had only personally lived between the opening and closing shutter of a modern camera loaded with black-and-white film, trying frantically to snatch up the last fleeting images of Manchester’s more picturesque past. The sign now lay just as disregarded, though now also physically cast aside, hiding its shame with its front turned in to face a cold brick wall, its face to the building, as the antiquated visage of one of its previous workers, ashamed to ask for assistance after sweating since her thirteenth year within its damp brick walls.

    I began to wonder at the evolution that was taking place around me. I created several mental examples of the harsh neon sign that was bound to take the place of the landmark, advertising whatever technology company had taken hold of part of the massive old building. The new flow that was bubbling up around me was one that was quite different from that feeling that I was so comfortable in. The river was flowing from somewhere other than its source. It was startling, in fact, to think how, to a newcomer to the city, the new bright neon announcing something that would be completely not “Pandora” , to an industry with not the slightest connection to textiles, would scarcely look out of place in a city devoting more space every day, as the majority of the rest of the country had before it, to the flashing monikers of cheap commerce, the assimilated strip malls, the brightly colored buildings screaming “Fast Cash, Payday Loans”, and the like.

    This is what the world of my generation looked like, the work of my time, yet this was definitely not the Manchester that I understood. And even less was this the Manchester that I felt.

    For some reason, the looming new incantations of the same ideas that urged Saul O Sidore to place the new sign atop the old building in 1940 seemed so much more jarring now when the paint on the sign would be fresh. I cringed as I figured that “Pandora” must have caused the same feelings of uneasiness when it first grappled itself to the top of the mill-yard (as the glimmering new signs fighting for the eye’s attention do to me) to those who grew up knowing the mills by no other company name than “Amoskeag”. It must have seemed just as crude, but with its rust it had bought its credibility, and the march of past commerce changes, with time, into culture.

    Standing on that familiar uneven brick sidewalk, my camera in my hand, my bicycle propped up beside me, my mood seemed to be approaching that of the sign; dejected, sore, facing the corner in shame. Suddenly somber and feeling more than a bit oblivious, I got back onto my bicycle and began pedaling slowly back in the direction of my old antique-yellow-colored wooden apartment building.


    On a flight between Logan and Phoenix International airports, after a visit home to see my family one winter, I found myself somewhere in the void between lost in thought and spacing out. On my mind, for reasons that I failed to be able to explain at first, was the image of the “Pandora SWEATERS” sign, lying against the old mill building; or rather, the image of one particular black-and-white still from the set of photographs that I had taken while lost in contemplation the day that I had encountered it.

    I was returning to the city of my new residence- a city which had virtually been borne of the elements that I could now see Manchester fighting against- a city where every parking lot (and most of the city, it seemed, was composed of parking lot) had a Starbucks in at least two of the corners, and one could live several months without finding a place to eat that was not part of a company that owned hundreds of wholly identical restaurants across the country. In the part of this town that I then resided in, there were no old signs to be taken down, no staunch brick history to fight against encroaching liquid asphalt, no warm decay to serve as inspiration to my art. I was beginning to understand my mind’s connection at the time with the discarded cursive sign.


    Ovid, and before him Hesiod, had told us of Pandora, created from clay, to fulfill the woman’s role among us, somehow as the young women who had been the sweater company’s primary initial labor source. And to Pandora was given a jar, or box (as a casket is more conventionally called), filled with the vices of the world. Through her curiosity, this Pandora proved compelled to open this jar, releasing our sins, our evils, which she had held prior firm within her grasp. Thus they escaped unto the world, and thus we are forced to learn to deal with them now. In Pandora’s jar, as she realized her mistake and tried to quickly snap the lid back on, all that remained at the bottom was Hope.


    The last mill in Manchester to bear its own name, the last remnant of the force that had built the city, the textile empire Amoskeag, was to fall by the wayside by the very industrialization, commercialization, oportunization, that had built it. Pandora had opened her box, and out of what she was had come the very thing that would destroy her.


    Tipping my head back on the cold gray airline upholstery, I took a well-worn copy of Hawthorne’s “Twice-Told Tales” from my bag and, trying to lose myself, frustrated and fatigued, submerged myself within the welcome of familiar old New England fiction.


    Pandora had released her own demons, and yet the new incantations seemed so much more vile than the same that had stood the test of time in staunch, familiar old brick. I returned to where there was little brick, and thus little struggle, and thus little to prod my artistic perception. There was little around me to decay, little visible history to contest the shining “new” that I dreaded so much to the point that I loathed. And, thus, I take few pictures.


    Decaying, cast aside, and facing the wall in shame, the image of the old “Pandora SWEATERS” marquee followed me that day to the city of my new home.


Matt P. said...

I enjoyed this. Thanks!

Bernard P. Provencher LeVautour said...

I'm glad, and you're welcome!

(Is this the "matt p" that I think it is?)

Matt P said...

You got it. I really enjoy anything related to the Manchester mills, and I have a permanent etching of the Pandora sign in my mind, rusty and resting on the side of that building.