Thursday, August 2, 2012

California Research Adventure: Days 1-3

Day 1:

Woke up disoriented. "Where am I?" Three nights ago I was in Lima, Peru, on our honeymoon. Two nights ago I was in Manhattan in our studio apartment. Last night...? Last night...? Look around, and out the window, "Oh right...Berkeley."

The view out my window, on the fourth floor of the Berkeley YMCA building. The building across the street is Berkeley City Hall, or some municipal building.

"Berkeley." Just the sound of the word makes an American think of 1960s youth counter-culture and civil rights and anti-war movements. I like that, whatever it is. But what is Berkeley, California, today? In 2012? And what am I, a scholar of Hawaiian history, doing here of all places?

First, let me back up and explain my accommodations. Yes, I'm staying at the YMCA. Where you can have a good time...et cetera...because it's fun to stay at the Y-M-C-A. (You know the rest.) I have never stayed at a Y before, but now I realize the Village People were pretty much right. It is fun...and weird...just like the Village People.

For $50 a night I have a small room two blocks from the University of California, Berkeley. No private bathroom, so I must trudge down the carpeted hall to a shared bathroom to shower, brush my teeth, and do those sort of things. In my frequent walks to the bathrooms, I see other people. Most of the other tenants here are younger than I, maybe college-age. Most are Asian. I have thought about this. Are they also in Berkeley to conduct dissertation research like me? No, probably not. Are they tourists from China? I don't think so. Students? Perhaps. Perhaps this is the cheapest summer accommodations for students who get kicked out of their dorms for summer break. But, while at $50 a night, staying at the Y is a steal for short-term visits, it is no bargain at roughly $1,500 a month for longer-term residents. One can surely find a sublet in Berkeley for cheaper than that, right? Maybe not.

There are also a few older residents. As I pass my new neighbors on the way to and from the bathrooms, I wonder about each of their stories. I wonder how long they have lived here. The place feels like a college dormitory. Now and then you see people in bathrobes and flip-flops scurrying to or from the showers with their toiletries. Late at night young people crowd into rooms, listen to music, and chat. Indeed, I get the feeling I am the only dissertater at the Y. But that said, it's a great deal. It is by far the cheapest accommodations in downtown Berkeley, just a 10 minute walk from the center of campus. In my room I've got free wi-fi so I can blog (ha!) or, review proofs of my soon-to-be-published journal article (yes, that's how I have been spending my Berkeley evenings).

Let's walk to campus. I have tried various breakfast places along the way to the University. Usually I get a bagel with hummus, cucumber, and avocado. (That seems to be a set breakfast option here in Berkeley.) I have yet to find a place offering tofu cream cheese, which is quite normal in Manhattan bagel shops. But this is not New York. The bagels here are small and spongy. Not New York bagels, but they will do. I have had horrible coffee that tasted like kerosene, and yet, this morning, I had the most lovely bean-flavored coffee — and that's what we want: coffee should taste like the bean it comes from.

No matter what I get in my belly, I continue uphill onto campus. Berkeley is the flagship school in the University of California system. It may be the most famous public university in the state (although people are also more familiar with the easy-to-remember acronym UCLA). SUNY — in New York — has no equivalent to Berkeley. Whether it's Stony Brook, Albany, Binghamton, or Buffalo, none of our research universities is as prestigious as Berkeley.

Berkeley's is a tree-filled campus, with beautiful architecture. (Can't say the same for Stony Brook!) I chug up hill to a big tower.

A tower at the center of campus. Kind of looks like the Washington Monument. University of California, Berkeley.

I turn around, and there's the Bancroft Library.

The Bancroft Library. University of California, Berkeley.

And this is why I'm here.

The Bancroft is open from 10am to 5pm Monday to Friday in the summer. I check in just past 10 and I am quickly and helpfully assisted with locking up my belongings, checking-in, and making my way to the Reading Room. In the Reading Room, I already have a series of collections waiting for my perusal (thanks to the Bancroft's online paging system). So I get cracking. 

Over two and a half days of research, I discovered both gems and junk at the Bancroft. I was hoping I might find some data related to Hawaiians living and working in 19th-century California — this is the subject of a chapter of my dissertation — and I did! Not much, but I didn't expect to find much. The topic of Hawaiians in California is a neglected one. Historians and archivists have done much more to organize and catalog research materials related to other immigrant laborers in 19th-century California, like the Chinese, for example. But Hawaiians, because of their small numbers, are not easy to find. You can't just search for "Hawaiians in California." You have to know names of specific people, places, businesses, etc. that were involved with Hawaiian immigrants, and then dig through those sources. You read one thousand pages of hand-written scrawl to find just one page that mentions a "Canaca" or two. (Yes, this spelling — rather than "Kanaka" — was what I found in documents from 1840s California. Lots of documents were in Spanish, which I was happy to find I could make at least some sense of, now that I've been learning Spanish. But in English-language documents I found some "Canacas." That was weird. But exactly what I'm looking for!)

I also found some useful material on the 19th-century sugar industry in Hawaiʻi, but that's a well-known topic, and it's not hard to find stuff on this topic.

After two days of research I felt like I had looked over a lot of material, and gotten a lot out of it. The amount of notes I took about equals the notes I produced at the New York Public Library, which surprised me. I had thought I would find much more at the Bancroft Library than at NYPL, but they have come out to be about equal.

I also spent hours reading materials that I won't use. I found some great material on health and disease in 1840s Hawaiʻi, which I may not use, but that may be immensely useful for a colleague I know studying the medical history of 19th-century Hawaiʻi. I found volumes upon volumes of primary sources relevant to the diplomatic and foreign relations history of the Hawaiian Kingdom. I won't use this stuff, but somebody — someone who wants to write yet another book about how the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi lost its political sovereignty — will love this. 

All in all, it was a pleasure doing research at the Bancroft Library. The staff is kind and helpful. The room is kept at a perfect temperature, is bathed in natural light, and I've got to say, they have the most comfortable chairs!!! Also, every good archive needs a good lunch place nearby, and Bancroft's got it. A staff member recommended the Free Speech Movement Cafe on campus. It is great. They have delicious sandwiches. Another day I walked to Telegraph Avenue and grabbed some falafel. To sum it up, any fatigued scholar need not worry about finding good food in Berkeley.

So what did I learn from my research? I don't know. I haven't really thought about it. I plan to return to my notes in a few weeks, or a few months, and then really think about it. Honestly, as it happens, conducting archival research here feels like a job. I wake up at the Y, wash my face, brush my teeth, grab a bagel and coffee on the go, and arrive at work at 10am. I take a lunch break around 1pm, then go back to research until about 4:30pm. Then I walk "home" to the Y and basically do more work on my laptop, web-cam with my wife back in New York, grab some Chinese take-out for dinner, and then do it again the next day.

I'd rather be in New York.

Anyway, about that next day...

Day 2:

Day 2 was the same as Day 1. Except, as I said, I got good falafel for lunch, and then went to a pizza place for dinner where I watched an open-mic where old hippies from the "real" Berkeley days got up and sang protest songs that may or may not be relevant anymore. Readers will know that I'm a big supporter of Occupy Wall Street, and I have been involved with various actions in New York since the beginning of OWS. I've been pleased, when riding on the BART train, to look out the window as the Port of Oakland passes by, and see the big highway that leads to the port, and remember the Oakland General Strike and port shut-down last fall that wowed the nation. I would have liked to have visited Oscar Grant Plaza in Oakland, but I never made it there. Around Berkeley, the only signs of protest I saw were held by gray-haired elders. Less often than signs, they held acoustic guitars and sang songs that seemed just as old as they were. I understand what they are doing, trying to hold on to a type of "Berkeley" that, in this decade, will turn 50 years old! That's no small feat. But the current generation must make their own "Berkeley." I wonder if Occupy Cal folks will be troubadour-ing these streets fifty years hence singing about these good-old days. We'll see.

Anyway, the great thing about Berkeley is that it makes you think about these things.

Day 3:

Day 3 was today. I knew I was going to play hooky even before I woke up, but I still went through the motions: brushed my teeth, grabbed a bagel and coffee, walked uphill to the big tower, turned around, entered the Bancroft Library. But I only looked at material for about one hour before packing up and leaving. That was my plan: to be able to say I spent three days doing research, when in reality I only spent two.

By noon I was back at the Y, changing my gear, and then hopping onto a BART train to San Francisco.

My transportation to San Francisco across the Bay. 

Just kidding!

The BART got me across San Francisco Bay in just thirty minutes. But the people I am studying — Hawaiian migrant workers — would have arrived at San Francisco after a few weeks at sea. I picture them arriving in this ship. The ship in the photograph is actually from the 1880s, not 1840s or 1850s, as I imagine, but it is a suitable picture. And of course, the ship in the photograph is docked on the north coast of the San Francisco peninsula, but in the days of my Hawaiian migrants, they would have docked at Yerba Buena Cove, which is now underneath the landfill-supported Financial District.

Anyway, this is why I came to San Francisco. To imagine. Because — look — the scrawl on a page in an archive in Berkeley is important. I don't deny that. But history is not only recorded in the written word. It is, in fact, all around us. It is the landfill-supported streets we walk on, that workers once labored to create, and someone, at some moment, decided to design. They say there are scores of old Gold-Rush era ships buried under San Francisco's Financial District. That's history right there, underneath our feet. So, historians should walk. And talk to people. And explore. Research is an adventure, and the clues we are looking for may not always be the clues we need. That's why Days 4, 5, 6, and 7 of my trip I will be exploring, and not reading.

So what did I do in San Francisco today? I disembarked the BART train at Powell Street and then sought a ride on the Powell-Hyde cable car to the north coast of San Francisco Peninsula.

I probably could have walked there faster than my cable car journey took. I had to wait in line for about twenty minutes to purchase a ticket, then waited over thirty minutes to get onto a not-full car. I quickly realized — after purchasing a round-trip ticket — that San Francisco's cable car system is a tourist trap, not  an efficient mode of public transportation.

Very touristy looking people riding the touristy Powell-Hyde cable car. San Francisco.

I kept telling people, "Please, I'm actually trying to get to Hyde and Beach [the end of the line]. I am actually going somewhere [the Maritime Historical Park]. Let me on this car!" But it was no use. Tourists at Powell were just getting on whichever car came next, whether it was the Mason line or the Hyde line. I couldn't understand this, except that perhaps they, too, had a round-trip ticket, and simply didn't care where they ended up, because they would just ride the damn thing back to Powell and Market in the end.

When I finally made it onto a car, I stood in the back with a British woman who now lives in mid-town Manhattan, and we chatted about how much we love New York. I was upset about wasting an hour just to get onto the car, but once we began our ascent up Powell Street and I looked back down Powell Street from the caboose of the car, I smiled. "Now this is a great form of public transportation!" So quickly I had a change of heart.

The view down Powell Street from the back of my cable car. San Francisco.

And while I don't know if any of the Hawaiian migrants I study ever rode in one of these cars, I at least found some happiness in hanging out the back and imagining myself back in the late 19th-century. Just replace all these automobiles with horses, and we're almost there.

Up and down. Up and down. And I felt ever glad I took the cable car rather than walked. Finally, I arrived at Hyde and Beach, and at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park

The Visitor Center of the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park.

My reason for visiting the Maritime Park here was to see if anything that I study — Hawaiian labor migration to California in the 19th-century — might appear here.

I spent over an hour viewing the exhibits in the visitor center. And, by golly, I found this:

At the Visitor Center of the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, a small exhibit in the corner of a room explains the history of sea otter fur and cattle hide extraction in pre-Gold Rush Mexican California.

Well I was happy to see this. Nowhere is this mentioned in the exhibit, but at least some Hawaiian migrants were employed to kill sea otters and cure cattle hides along the California coast in the 1830s. I can't say Hawaiians were numerically important in these industries, but they were there, and that's important enough for me. The exhibit features a few cattle hides — in the 1830s they were shipped round Cape Horn to New England to be manufactured into shoes — as well as two branding irons, each with its own distinctive symbol. The art of curing the cattle hides is best described by Richard Henry Dana, Jr. in his travelogue, Two Years Before the Mast. A good read, if you are interested.

Elsewhere in the museum was a sea otter pelt that visitors could touch. I touched it. It felt so soft and smooth. Just wonderful! No wonder Chinese consumers wanted so many of these in the late 18th and early 19th centuries! Indeed, sea otters are what put Alta California on the map for most people in the world outside of Imperial Spain and California's indigenous peoples back then.

But the real strength of the Maritime Park is outside, not inside. So I walk down the Hyde Street Pier.

View up Hyde Street from the Hyde Street Pier. San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park.

I was a beautiful day. Sunny and clear. The breeze from the bay was strong, and quite cold. The pier was packed with tourists. And packed with historic boats. Most were from the 20th-century. But at least a few were from the 19th-century, like the 1886 Balclutha.

The 1886 Balclutha, a British ship that in the early 20th century was put into service on the U.S. West Coast - Alaska route, bringing tons of canned salmon from Alaska to mainland consumers.

I doubt that any of the ships at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park had Hawaiian crew members. Maybe. Everything here dates from beyond the period I study. (My dissertation covers the era of trans-Pacific trade from the 1780s to the 1870s.) But then, just by happenstance, I found this vessel:

Nā Wahine O Ke Kai. Women of the Sea. An outrigger canoe on the beach at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park.

Women of the Sea? Of course, here I am, the Hawaiian history scholar, peering at this canoe with my bugged-out eyes, translating the Hawaiian in my head. Nā Wahine of Ke Kai. Women of the Sea? What kind of name for a vessel is that? And what is an outrigger canoe doing here in San Francisco? This is a canoe modeled on a traditional Polynesian design. I know this canoe isn't a historical one, but is it perhaps a sign of present-day Hawaiian maritime activity here at San Francisco?

Well, thanks to Google, here is a possible explanation:
Perhaps this is one of the original vessels from the Nā Wahine O Ke Kai women's canoeing competition which began in 1979 in Hawaiʻi. According to the competition's website, the founding of this race in 1979 marked a milestone in women's participation in competitive canoeing: http://www.nawahineokekai.com/history.html

But no. Then I found this website:
explaining how a Samoan Church in San Francisco built an outrigger canoe in the late 1980s, and then two local women developed a canoe club inspired by that canoe, and then based their canoeing on the use of another canoe in the early 1990s. 
Well, actually now they have many canoes. And the fact that one is pictured in a photograph on their website right where the Nā Wahine O Ke Kai was sitting today at the Maritime Historical Park suggests that I found the history here! Or at least part of it.

And so, you never know what you will find when you leave the archives and explore! I have had fun these three days in the Bay Area. Now I'm off to Gold Country.

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