Monthly Archives: October 2014


Erin "Scratchy" Hutter (at left), Tom Moran, Stephanie Vargo, and a profile shot of Erin Snyder.

Erin “Scratchy” Hutter (at left), Tom Moran, Stephanie Vargo, and a profile shot of Erin Snyder.

Tonight is Halloween, putting me in mind of past Halloween celebrations. Some of the most fun ones I’ve had were spent in Pittsburgh at the end of the last century, when a few of us led by Tom and Stephanie of the Deliberate Strangers organized three annual music festivals: Twangburgh (in 1998) and the Haunted Hillbilly Hoedown (in 1999 and 2000). All three featured the Deliberate Strangers, as well as  kindred spirits ranging from locals Coal Train and the Polish Hillbillies to national acts such as Jon Langford, the Drive-By Truckers, Dirtball, and Hazel Dickens. They were a lot of work, but also a delight to experience both for the music and camaraderie.

Scratchy with her fiddle and  Slim Forsythe.

Scratchy with her fiddle and Slim Forsythe.

Erin “Scratchy” Hutter was a big part of these festivities. If you’ve listened to much music in Pittsburgh over the past twenty years, there’s a good chance you’ve enjoyed Scratchy play her violin, make spooky noises on her theremin, or contribute harmony vocals somewhere. Her tastes ran from traditional country to Nick Cave, evident in her black wardrobe and the variety of her bands. I first saw Scratchy play with the Deliberate Strangers opening for Robbie Fulks (at a sports bar in Shadyside, of all places), and over the years got to hear her play many shows with the Strangers, as well as alt.rock aggregation Boxstep and electric string quartet EQ (with namesake Erin Snyder) before I moved away in 2003. Scratchy sweetened the sound of all of these bands, and was generally a supportive part of the scene. Whether it was expressing concern for a concertgoer who had over-imbibed, or training with me at WRCT so she could showcase music from local bands, Scratchy made things better for the people around her.

Scratchy died earlier this week at the far too early age of 48. Services are set for tomorrow morning, All Saints’ Day. I will always think of her at Halloween.

Here’s a clip of her, Erin Snyder, and Slim Forsythe playing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” from last year.  Undertaker, please drive slow.

Whose Waste? Whose Problem?

PlasticBagsChicagoI’m in Munich this week for the interdisciplinary workshop Whose Waste? Whose Problem?

Conveners: Eveline Dürr (LMU), Soraya Heuss (LMU), Roman Koster (LMU), and Christof Mauch (LMU/RCC)

Waste has until now mainly been a technical problem, matched by technical solutions in waste disposal, waste management, and recycling. But waste is a complex phenomenon that can only be fully understood by exploring cultural perceptions and social practices alongside the technical strategies for dealing with waste. A broader view helps us to focus more clearly on the political topicality of waste, for instance in the context of the fast-growing megacities. It is all the more surprising, therefore, that there has not yet been any systematic research into the social, legal, and political discussions about waste in the light of modern developments.

This three-day workshop, as part of the LMU Center for Advanced Studies research focus ‘Waste in Environment and Society,’ features presentations by leading scholars on ‘waste-scapes,’ how waste travels, and the possibility of a future without waste.

Presenters include:

  • Catherine Alexander (Anthropologist, University of Durham)
  • Amanda Boetzkes (Art Historian, Ohio State University)
  • Kate Brown (Historian, University of Maryland, Baltimore)
  • Christian Felske (City of Edmonton, Waste Management Services)
  • Stefania Gallini (Historian, Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Bogotá)
  • Zsuzsa Gille (Sociologist, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)
  • Jutta Gutberlet (Geographer, University of Victoria)
  • Sarah Hill (Anthropologist, Western Michigan University)
  • Herbert Köpnik (Formerly from Bavarian Ministry for Environment and Health)
  • Martin Melosi (Historian, University of Houston)
  • Jorge Fernández Niello (Environmental Engineer, Universidad Nacional de San Martín)
  • Gerhard Rettenberger (Engineer, Hochschule Trier)
  • Vera Susanne Rottner (Engineer, Waste Management)
  • Djahane Salehabadi (Sociologist)
  • John Scanlan (Sociologist, Manchester Metropolitan University)
  • Tian Song (Philosophy/Sociology, Beijing Normal University)
  • Carl Zimring (Environmental Historian, Pratt Institute)

The Loma Prieta Earthquake 25 Years Later


The San Francisco Chronicle initially reported hundreds dead in the massive 1989 earthquake.

Twenty-five years ago today at 5pm PT, I was in a condominium in downtown Santa Cruz. Game 3 of the Giants-A’s “Bay Bridge” World Series game at Candlestick Park was about to start when the TV began acting like a basketball. A few minutes later, when the earth stopped shaking, we walked out to see some houses sitting at 45-degree angles from their foundations, some buildings completely collapsed, and every chimney in the area in rubble. (Our building was untouched, aside from every dish in the kitchen shattering on the floor. When the electricity eventually came on, we found that the TV even worked.)

Somehow the phones never got knocked out, so we were able to get tabs on many of our friends and help where we could. Pretty much every able-bodied person in the area had the same instinct, so as darkness fell, we arranged for as many people as possible to get the perishables out of their refrigerators and come down to use our grill. We had a delicious feast that night as the aftershocks — some of which were larger than most of the quakes the area had seen in recent memory — rocked the building.


Downtown Santa Cruz.

That was the last good food we would have for quite a while as we quickly relied on peanut butter, ramen, and other durables in the days before power was restored while fielding phone calls from friends and family from around the world (when they could get through the jammed lines). The downtown area — including the historic Cooper Building that had undergone a retrofit to withstand seismic activity just a few months earlier — was so devastated that most of the businesses that didn’t go under would move into giant “temporary” tents for the next three years or so.

Miraculously, the number of people killed in Santa Cruz could be counted on two hands; judging by the number of collapsed buildings one would have thought that hundreds had perished (as the Chronicle headline in this post feared). The entire Bay Area suffered sixty-three deaths (most in the collapsed I-880 Cypress Structure), but those of us near the epicenter were very, very fortunate.  I don’t know if subsequent plate shifts have since altered it, but there was a huge chasm in the woods not far from the UC campus for years afterwards.

Eventually the chimneys were restored, demolition of unsavable buildings took place, and a major rebuilding effort was evident by the time I moved away in 1992. When I visited Santa Cruz five years later, there were no gaping holes where houses and businesses stood, but the town looked much different than it had on October 16, 1989.

Loma Prieta came up at the Urban Historical Association meeting in Philadelphia last week. The Urban Historical Association meets every other year in October. The previous meeting was in New York City, and the out-of-town attendees scrambled to flee the city as Sandy approached landfall.

For the Philadelphia meeting, a roundtable discussion on Sandy and sustainability moderated by Ellen Stroud and featuring Rohit Aggarwala, Jaye Fox, and Andrew Needham discussed the lessons of such “natural disasters” (I use quotes echoing Ted Steinberg’s argument that much of the disastrous elements have to do with human-built structures and economic inequalities) for urban historians.

One lesson from the 1989 earthquake (and the 1994 Northridge earthquake) was a focus on planning to make cities “earthquake-safe” rather than “earthquake-proof” through modeling. This approach seeks to reduce risk while recognizing it is never eliminated; the 2011 Fukushima disaster is in part a lesson that natural events may be more powerful than what reasonable models project, and that the human-built world can vastly exacerbate the scale of disaster that results. Additionally, the major earthquake that devastated Christchurch, New Zealand that same year was not on one of the faults that worried area seismologists. Safety is not guaranteed; that lesson certainly resonates when “storms of the century” become more frequent on the eastern seaboard.

Twenty-five years after the Loma Prieta earthquake destroyed downtown Santa Cruz, I live in another metropolitan region at risk from disasters. When searching for our last home, I consulted information about which neighborhoods were more dangerous than others. I did not consult violent crime statistics, but rather NYC’s hurricane evacuation map revised in the wake of Sandy. Our home is not in an area presently rated as a potential evacuation zone, though I understand that the map may be revised in light of new information, and a powerful storm could overwhelm the existing model of risk. Although the world has changed substantially in the past quarter century, Loma Prieta’s lessons on risk never being eliminated resonate today.