The Gowanus Canal (all photographs by the author unless indicated)
Having grown up in Brooklyn just a few blocks away, the stench of Gowanus Canal reminds me of my childhood, but for all the time I've spent smelling the canal I never imagined I’d one day go canoeing on it — and then, this October, I did.
The Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club is a volunteer organization that believes people should enjoy their waterfront, no matter how much lead, mercury, pesticide, cholera, typhoid, typhus, gonorrhea, and something called black mayonnaise (a 10-foot thick layer of various pollutants which cakes the bottom of the canal) it may be filled with. Logging over 2,000 trips last season, they have free outings weekly, the only requirement being that you wear a life vest. When I asked veteran dredger Owen Foote if he’d ever accidentally come in contact with canal water, he responded: “Certainly, and I have superpowers because of it.”
Indeed, both on and below its surface the Gowanus is filled with many a poison. Liquid coal tar, usually measured in parts per million, is measured in parts per hundred in the canal, and microbes found in the water have evolved a resistance to filth. Canoeing on the canal means pushing away plastic bags and empty soda cans with your oar, the vessel gliding over rainbow-colored clumps of chemicals and woefully soggy take out containers. At one point, I even passed a bubbling whirlpool of gunk, casually glugging away under one of the canal’s seven bridges.
1851 oil painting "Sunset at Gowanus Bay" by Henry Gritten (via Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, Tasmania)
Everybody’s favorite brownfield, today the Gowanus is practically venerated, a source of backwards Brooklyn pride as one of the most polluted spots in the nation — but it used to be much, much worse. Built in the mid-19th century in place of the Gowanus Creek, it quickly became a favorite dumping spot for local ink factories and the Mafia. In the 1880s, the canal was given its nickname “Lavender Lake” after its changing daily pigment due to the nearby dye manufacturers’ waste. At the time, some poor people were convinced that the rising rank fumes had healing powers, and would stand their asthmatic children on the canal bridges to absorb them. A common pastime in the warmer months was to stand on the banks and watch decomposing sludge boil and spit bubbles the size of basketballs ride the surface.Read More
Wax model of a somatotype showing obesity created by Marjorie Winslow (1946) (from the Museum of Health Care at Kingston. Used with Permission)
Wax anatomical models are common curiosities in medical museums, but the Robertston Collection of wax moulages at the Museum of Health Care in Kingston, Ontario, is especially unique in its focus on the bodies of women. When the moulages were created in the 1930s, there was a major lack of models for teaching and training doctors on obstetrics and gynecology. So a forward-thinking Dr. Edwin Robertson enlisted a Canadian artist named Marjorie Winslow to create a whole series of models showing female anatomy and anatomical procedures. The catch was, she wasn't allowed to sketch in the clinic, and had to rely on memory.
Dr. Pamela Peacock, Curator at the Museum of Health Care, told us more about the Robertson Collection:
The Robertson Collection of wax moulages at the Museum of Health Care preserves an important moment in the history of medical teaching aids. The use of anatomical and pathological models in the development of understandings of the body can be argued to go back to Neolithic times with the creation of female figurines, such as the Venus of Willendorf. Wax anatomical figures for medical training became popular during the Renaissance and continued for several centuries, until the discovery of various plastic materials eclipsed wax in the twentieth-century. The Robertson Collection is uniquely placed at the juncture of this transition from wax to plastic and offers an important entry point to a subject that touches on educational practice, materials history, and material culture.Read More
The Pripyat Ferris Wheel (photograph by Alexandra Jade Flintoff)
In this guide, we are drawing back the Iron Curtain to have a little look at life in the days of the Soviet Union. Initially, we’ll be looking at city playgrounds... but from there we'll take a step back to examine other popular leisure venues spread far and wide across the former USSR. Many of these sites still enjoy regular use, while others have long since been abandoned — in which case we’ll be wading through the dust to uncover clues about their past.
So without further ado, allow us to introduce you to the Essential Guide to Soviet Playgrounds: our compendium of fun and games in the USSR.
Children’s playgrounds were prolific in the USSR. They formed an integral part of the urban landscape, and by the 1970s and 80s these basic metal affairs appeared in almost every park across many of the larger Soviet cities. They were built outside schools, beneath church towers, and on the side of roads.
As with many of the other fittings associated with the USSR, playground accessories were usually produced en masse at large manufacturing plants. As a result, there was a tendency for these to follow repetitive patterns and designs: with playgrounds and parks from Eastern Europe to Russia’s Pacific Coast often featuring identical sets of swings and seesaws, rockets and roundabouts, bridges and monkey bars.
A crude Soviet-style slide stands in a churchyard (photograph by Darmon Richter)
A basic playground beside a city street (photograph by Darmon Richter)
We can probably all picture these playgrounds — rusted bars, simple metal frames planted in public spaces and painted up in rainbow colors. Contemporary Western visitors have likened these Spartan play sets to army obstacle courses, with their brutal construction and generous use of old tires.
Well, it’s not far from the truth. Their basic construction meant that Soviet playgrounds were cheap to produce, while social dynamics had an effect in dictating their widespread popularity; in many families both parents would work during the day, and so parks in the Soviet Union were often populated by unattended children. These easy playground set-ups provided the perfect solution.
Ready for blast off! (photograph by Lance Roberts)
Statue of a policeman incorporated into a Soviet playground (photograph by Lance Roberts)
At best, they were bland, but at worst these metal-framed horrors were potential death traps. It’s clear that many of these playgrounds would never have passed safety inspections in the West.Read More
The path to New Slains Castle (all photographs by the author)
Welcome to my house. Enter freely and of your own will.
— Count Dracula to protagonist Jonathon Harker in Bram Stoker’s "Dracula"
This is the second installment of the author's journey through vampire lore in Europe. Click here to read part one: Undead Secrets of Paris.
When we flew into Scotland, the weather forecast was particularly bleak — rain day in and out, a cold front coming — and as we followed the pastoral “drystane dyke” ("dry stone wall") path to the New Slains Castle ruins, a fog rolled around the structure's warm-colored stone walls in what felt like a Quest's distance. The North Sea was silvery and disturbed when we came up on the castle grounds, foaming as it crashed at the cliffs below.
The castle ruins
New Slains Castle, now just wall segments with large picture windows, stone stairways to nowhere, and unreachable, crumbling turrets, was once the painstakingly grand reconstruction of a 13th century castle just a few miles away. New Slains was built in the 16th Century by the newly re-established Earl of Erroll, who had been banished and his previous castle destroyed for rebelling under the name of the Roman Catholic church.
The lounge at the Kilmarnock Arms Hotel
Later into the evening of our arrival, as my husband and I sat in Kilmarnock Arms, a picturesque inn with a traditional pub cozied into the corner of Bridge Street in Cruden Bay, I recounted the Paris leg of our journey to his aunt and uncle, both Cruden Bay locals for 14 years. I described in detail our incredible journey through Paris on the vampire trail with Jacques Sirgent, a world renowned vampire specialist who runs the Vampire Museum of Paris. I shared how surreal it felt to flip through a first edition of Dracula and run my hand over the keys of Bram Stoker’s typewriter. My husband’s aunt, a local historian, was delighted to inform us that we had, in fact, incidentally followed the vampire trail further, right there to Kilmarnock Arms.Read More
James Farley Post Office (all photographs by the author)
Accompanying my friend to update her passport one blistery winter afternoon last year, she led me to a building in Midtown Manhattan so impressive that I couldn’t believe I’d never seen it before. Somehow lost among the other overwhelming structures of Eighth Avenue, the James A. Farley Post Office building is two city blocks of marble.
Squashed between Madison Square Garden and Penn Station, the hulk was built in 1912, and is proudly inscribed with the unofficial creed of the United States Postal Service: Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds. A vital structure for all the eccentric diversities and vital amenities of the postal service, the James Farley Post Office is home to Operation Santa, a program begun in 1912 which authorizes postmasters to respond to children's letters to Santa Claus. It was also instrumental in maintaining service levels after the September 11th attacks, and until the economic downturn in 2009, was the only post office in New York City open to the public 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Inside, the building is just as grand; its ceilings seem to be a mile high (40 feet, in reality) and paneled in what looks like gold (but is actually wood), and the individual booths have an old school glamor of another century. The contrast of people walking around in their street clothes is surreal. As my friend waited in line, I wandered the ground floor. Just as I was about to look around the stamp shop to kill time, I noticed a small gallery off the main corridor.Read More
Donkey in British Columbia (photograph by bagsgroove/Flickr user)
Stubborn, hard-working, and charming, modern donkeys too often live lives of uncelebrated drudgery not much different than their ancestors who were first domesticated by the Egyptians 5,000 years ago. Because the unflappable beasts could carry loads disproportionate with their small size, Egyptians, who had previously hunted wild asses for meat, began using them to transport goods across great distances. Archaeologists believe this occurred as agrarian societies started to make long-distance trade central to their civilizations. As people traveled and traded, donkeys eventually became ubiquitous around the world. Here are some of the most fascinating locales for the adorable and sturdy equines.
WORKING DONKEYS: MEDINA OF FEZ
A donkey in Medina of Fez (photograph by Beatriz Posada Alonso)
One of the most extraordinary places to view donkeys is the Medina of Fez in Morocco. Because cars cannot traverse the narrow streets of the old city, donkeys still serve the same function they did when the city was founded in the early Middle Ages: delivering goods.
The lovable pack animals are such a part of the social fabric that they are unremarkable to residents. Susan Orlean, writing of her trip to the Medina of Fez, described locals reacting to her lively inquiries about donkeys as if she had been enthusiastic about their wheelbarrows. While the donkeys in Fez mostly exist to transport goods, in the case of the Chouara Leather Tannery they contribute urine to an ancient preparation for animal hides.
There's a Medina of Fez donkey under all those pelts (photograph by Steve & Jemma Copley)
ISLAND DONKEYS: ARUBA DONKEY SANCTUARY
Santa Cruz, Aruba
Wild donkeys in Aruba (photograph by Joe Mazzola)
In many locales, donkeys made obsolete by paved roads were set free and began to thrive in packs. This happened on Caribbean islands like Aruba and Bonaire, though today the non-indigenous “wild” populations are often protected, and visitors can meet the donkeys at places like Aruba Donkey Sanctuary. The non-profit sanctuary protects the wild donkeys, and while visitors can enjoy them, locals are encouraged to adopt.Read More
The Shilin Stone Forest in the Yunnan Province of China is one of the most otherworldly places on earth, with towering limestone formations that seem like trees suddenly petrified. The Stone Forest is especially important to the Yi people, who have lived in the area for over 2,000 years, and each 24th day of the sixth lunar month (falling sometime in August) they hold the Torch Festival in the shadow of the rock giants.
Stone Forest in 1995 (photograph by Arian Zwegers)
A Yi story holds that one of the pillars of the Stone Forest is in fact a girl named Ashima who turned to stone after she was forbidden from marrying her love. She's a key figure to the Torch Festival, where many of the young Yi court potential suitors through dance and song. But that's just one part of the incredibly elaborate festival.
Dancers at the Torch Festival (photograph by Sarah Jamerson)
There are also pole-climbing competitions, traditional wrestling, and lion dancing (presumably a style of dance, not parading lions). Dancing is central to the festival, and one dance has the men and women facing each other while the men play a traditional stringed instrument and the women clap the beat while kicking in time.
There is also bull fighting, but in this case it's not some puny human taking on a powerful beast, it is actually two ox battling. But the most staggering spectacle is saved for last. 400 torches are lit and paraded into the form of a fire dragon that casts its glow against the silhouettes of the stone forest in the night. The Stone Forest Torch Festival isn't the only Yi Torch Festival, but it's likely the most stunning with its stone landscape.Read More
Japan old and new (photograph by Ciro Cattuto)
Edo, Japan, grew by 1823 to be one of the world’s largest cities. Yet very little of Edo now survives. Not only was Tokyo thrown on top of it in 1868 when the Emperor moved his court from Kyoto to his new "Eastern Capital" — or "To-kyo" — but it has been razed by fires, by earthquakes, and by Allied firebombing during the Second World War, when half the city was destroyed. Between the Tokugawa shogunate and the drone of Allied bombers (as well as by Godzilla and other kaiju since then), first Edo and then Tokyo has been destroyed, on average, every 30 years. It's happened so frequently that during the shogunate government (which held power from about 1600 to 1868), Edo was referred to as the "City of Fires."
Tokyo is now a city of skyscrapers and neon, of more than 35 million people staring into their cell phones. It is the essence of a modern city, a city on the cutting edge of technology juxtaposed with the occasional quaint and touristy attractions that highlight Japan’s history, like the Geisha in Ginza, or the Zozoji Temple that stands at the feet of Tokyo Tower, itself a bright orange, 300-meter-tall replica of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
Riding the Hibiya Line (photograph by Tokyo Times)
The Hibiya Line of Tokyo’s vast subway network is one of the city’s newest, built to connect those places you’ll find scattered through your guidebooks, including districts like Roppongi, a notorious night-club district; Ginza, with its aforementioned Geisha; Akihabara, the electronics district; and Ueno, with its zoo and museums. But the Hibiya Line also stops at some more unusual sites, hidden behind train stations with names that won’t ring any bells. It connects not only the places that Tokyo wants to display, it also runs by Iriya and Minowa stations, Kodemmacho Station, and Minami-Senju Station, places with a closer connection to the city buried beneath Tokyo: Edo.
Iriya and Minowa Stations
Jokanji Temple (photograph by Jim O'Connell)
The Throw-Away Temple (Jokanji Temple) is not far from Minowa Station, in a district that is no longer called Yoshiwara, perhaps in an attempt to escape the ghosts of the area’s past. The district is now known as Senzoku, and once housed the pleasure quarter of Edo/Tokyo from 1657 until the mid-20th century. Between its founding and its closing with the Anti-Prostitution Law of 1957, the walls of Yoshiwara imprisoned more than 25,000 girls and women, most sold into indentured-prostitution between the ages of seven and twelve.Read More
Krampus with babies postcard (via riptheskull/Flickr user)
Thanks to the internet, popular American understanding of European Christmas traditions has grown by leaps and bounds over the last decades. There’s also confusion too, some of it swirling around that wily old devil, Krampus.
Accompanying St. Nicholas on his gift-giving rounds to direct a little switch-swinging intimidation toward the naughtier kids, the Krampus has become the most well-known of other Central European characters playing a similar role. Originally appearing under that name in Austria and Southern Germany, his distinctive devilish appearance is not easily confused with Northern Germany’s hooded Knecht Ruprecht or Holland’s “Moorish” Zwarte Piet (“Black Peter”).
It was in 2004, that collector Monte Beauchamp launched a series of books that did much to familiarize Americans with Krampus via reprinted collection of turn-of-the-century Krampus postcards. Thanks to these images, most Atlas Obscura readers will probably be able to describe Krampus: a distinctly satyr-like devil with dark fur, and incessantly slithering tongue.
But then videos showed up to confuse the issue.
Krampus card from the 1900s (via Wikimedia)
As videos made their way from German-language YouTube channels to American blogs, we became acquainted with another more brutish creature represented by costumed young men herding together as part of a Krampuslauf or “Krampus run.” These shaggy Yeti-like creatures with gaping jack-o-lantern jaws and enormous heads crowned by massive horns in multiple configurations made the postcard devils appear rather diminutive, almost gentlemanly by comparison.
2012 Krampuslauf in Austria (photograph by Johann Jaritz)
Clearly, these videos represent a more contemporary phenomenon than the postcard fad of bygone days. So do the cards depict the Krampus in his purer, original form? What should a “real” Krampus look like?Read More
Happy Thanksgiving! In honor of the day of feasting, we are celebrating the the unusual architecture of buildings shaped like food. This novelty architecture was especially popular in roadside attractions to perhaps inspire some stomach growling as travelers passed by, but you'll see examples both old and new where tasty meals served as inspiration for design.
Our only rules for the list are one building per food item (sorry multitude of giant milk bottles), and that the food itself must be part of the form of the building, not just some giant sculpture on top (sorry giant donuts). We've previously looked at buildings shaped like animals and buildings shaped like obsolete technology, and these 20 buildings show that the edible is just as appealing for architecture.
Beach Kiosk, Penticton Beach, British Columbia, Canada (photograph by dawn-pinkchick/Flickr user) The T.S. Eliot reference may or may not be intentional.
Dunmore Pineapple, Scotland (photograph by Steve Macfriendly)
Donut Hole, La Puente, California (photograph by soupstance/Flickr user)
LOAF OF BREAD
The Loaf, Elysburg, Pennsylvania (photograph by zizzybaloobah/Flickr user)Read More