Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Playa Lakes of the South Plains

The geological region that Lubbock occupies is the Llano Estacado, or "staked plain." Forming the southern end of the Great Plains region of the central US, the Llano Estacado is essentially a massive mesa that stretches 250 miles north to south, and 150 miles east to west, covering much of northwest Texas and eastern New Mexico. The first Europeans to see this region were the members of the expedition of 1541 led by the Spanish explored Francisco Vasquez de Coronado. One of the members of the party described the flatness of the Llano, noting that there was not "a hill nor a hillock which was three times as high as a man." That same chronicler, Pedro de Castaneda, went on to describe one of the most distinctive geological features of the Llano Estacado:
Several lakes were found at intervals; they were round as plates, a stone's throw or more across, some fresh and some salt. The grass grows tall near these lakes; away from them it is very short, a span or less.
 Coronado called these small lakes playa lakes, because some of them had sandy shores and playa is the Spanish word for "beach."

Playa lakes are defined as shallow, roughly circular wetlands that are filled primarily by rainwater. They are small, usually around 15-30 acres, although a few can measure up to 800 acres. Playa lakes can be found in several states, including Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, and elsewhere, but they are most common on the Llano Estacado. About 85 percent of the playa lakes are in northwest Texas and eastern New Mexico.

Because they are filled by rainwater, playa lakes go through unpredictable wet and dry cycles. During dry peiods, the lakes can dry up completely, leaving only shallow depressions in the landscape. But a heavy thunderstorm can cause the lakes to fill quickly.

An Ecological Resource

Playa lakes are a valuable ecological resource. As noted in the quote above, the vegetation in the areas around the lakes is more lush than on the surrounding plains. Smartweed, millets, and other plants grow in abundance, and the wetlands support a variety of invertabrates such as tadpole shrimp. This makes the playa lakes region important stopover for migrating birds, especially water birds. In the fall and winter, an amazing variety of ducks, geese, cranes, shore birds, and wading birds can be seen on and around the playa lakes, especially in years of heavier rainfall.

During times of drought, when the play lakes dry up, and in cold winter periods when the lakes freeze over, migrating birds are forced to find larger lakes, reservoirs, and rivers. This can mean traveling long distances in a region where large sources of water are few and far between. If global climate change continues to produce severe and extended drought such as has occured the past few years, the consequences for birds migrating along the central flyway that passes over the Llano Estacado could be severe.

I took this photograph this morning of the playa lake in Clapp Park, near our house in Lubbock. Although it is still a bit early in the migration season, you can see a number of migratory waterfowl on the lake. Later in the fall and winter, many of the lakes around town will be covered with Canada geese and other waterfowl.

The ecological importance of playa lakes goes beyond providing a source of food and water for birds and other wildlife. These lakes play an important role in recharging the Ogallala aquifer. The Ogallala aquifer is a shallow underground layer of permeable rock that contains fresh water, stretching from South Dakota to western Texas. Lubbock sits above the southern part of the aquifer. In recent times, the Ogallala aquifer has provided a vital source of water for the communities of the high plains, and for crop irrigation. Because of the nature of the soil in the plains region, playa lakes are among the few places where groundwater can seep through to recharge the aquifer. It has been estimated that in the southern part of the Ogallala region, playa lakes are responsible for up to 95 percent of aquifer recharge.

Unfortunately, erosion and sedimentation caused by poor farming and grazing practices has seriously degraded many of the playa lakes, leaving them unable to collect and filter water to the aquifer. Establishing native prairie grassland buffers around playa lakes could help maintain the integrity of the lakes, reducing erosion and sedimentation, allowing them to collect water and filter it to the aquifer, while continuing to provide habitat for birds and other wildlife.

Playa Lakes in Lubbock

There are numerous playa lakes located within the Lubbock city limits. Over the years, the city has established parks around most of these lakes. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department regularly stocks these lakes with catfish, bass, and trout for recreational fishing.

Clapp Park, which I pictured above, is one of the larger city parks and is in the neighborhood where I grew up. When we moved back to Lubbock two years ago, I was surprised to learn that this park, with its playa lake, is one of the best places in the area for bird watching, especially during the migrations in the fall and spring.

Another Lubbock playa lake at Leroy Elmore Park

Within the city, the storm sewer system channels rainwater into the playa lakes. This means that some of these lakes may retain water longer than normal even during dry periods. Nevertheless, I can remember many times during my life that the lake in Clapp Park went completely empty. I can even remember as a child walking across the dry, cracked lake bed, engulfed by the smell of rotting fish. The sight of a dry playa lake bed is, of course, part of the normal cycle of wet and dry for the Llano Estacado. Sadly, however, if recent trends of extended drought continue, this may continue to become a more frequent sight for this region.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Justice, Better Late than Never

At the end of my previous post on Lubbock streets, I mentioned a few people with local connections who I think are deserving of having a street named after them. I left out one person who I believe is more deserving than any.

In the spring of 1985 a serial rapist was terrorizing the Texas Tech campus and surrounding neighborhoods of Lubbock. On March 24, a student named Michele Mallin was attacked in a church parking lot across the street from the university, driven to a field outside of the city, and sexually assaulted. Two weeks after the attack, a 26 year old African-American army veteran and Tech student named Timothy Cole was arrested for the attack. Mallin identified Cole as the attacker first from a photo lineup, then an in-person lineup. The following year, Timothy Cole was convicted of sexual assault and sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Timothy Cole, from his Wikipedia page

Cole maintained his innocence from the time of his arrest until he died in prison, from complications of severe asthma, in 1999. He was twice offered parole, but refused both times. His conviction was, to put it mildly, dubious. When Mallin viewed the photo lineup from which she identified Cole, his photo was the only polaroid--the others were mugshots--and the only one of the five photos that was in color. Mallin stated that the attacker smoked cigarettes during the assault, but Cole could not smoke due to his asthma. Moreover, Cole's brother and several other witnesses confirmed that he had spent the night of the attack in his apartment studying. And the attack on Mallin fit the pattern of other assaults by the serial rapist, assaults which continued after Cole's arrest and detention.

In 1995, four years before Timothy Cole died, another inmate in the Texas State prison system, Jerry Wayne Johnson, wrote a letter to the police and prosecutors in Lubbock confessing to the rape of Michele Mallin. This letter, and others that followed, were ignored, and Cole died never knowing that another man had confessed to the crime. Finally, in 2007, one of Johnson's letters reached the Innocence Project of Texas, which began an investigation into the case. The Innocence Project attorneys sought, and the following were granted, DNA testing, which ruled out Cole and confirmed Johnson as the rapist.

On March 1, 2010, Texas Governor Rick Perry posthumously pardoned Timothy Cole. Because of the case, two laws were passed, both named for Cole. The Tim Cole Compensation Act awards prisoners wrongly convicted, or their surviving families, $80,000 for every year incarcerated, the most generous compensation package of any state in the US. And the state legislature created the Timothy Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions, charged with investigating the causes of wrongful convictions, and instructed to present a plan to prevent them going forward. The work of this panel has led to reforms in how local and state law enforcement agencies use eyewitness testimony in criminal cases.

On Wednesday, September 17 of this year, the city of Lubbock unveiled a statue of Timothy Cole, on a patch of land across 19th Street from the Texas Tech Campus. The plot, at one of the busiest intersections in the city, is now named the Tim Cole Memorial Park. At Cole's feet is the inscription "And Justice For All." Cole's body faces the church where the attack took place, while his face is turned toward the Texas Tech Law School, where his sister Karen Kennard earned her law degree as he served his time in prison.

The ceremony unveiling the memorial was attended by numerous political dignitaries, including Governor Perry, State Attorney General Greg Abbott, and gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis, as well as members of Timothy Cole's family. Also in attendance was Michele Mallin, the victim in the attack, who has recanted her testimony, and joined with Cole's family and the Innocence Project in the effort to exonerate Cole.

The fact that Timothy Cole spent the last years of his life in prison for a crime that he did not commit is a tragic travesty of justice that can never truly be made right. But he has left a legacy that at least tempers the wrong that was done to him. The legislation passed in his honor has made Texas, surprisingly, one of the most progressive states in the treatment, and the prevention, of wrongful convictions. By freely forgiving Mallin, Cole's family members are continuing the example of dignity that he established during his time in prison. And in working to create Cole's memorial, the city of Lubbock has acknowledged the wrong that was committed and the need to make sure that future injustices are avoided.

The view of the Texas Tech University campus
from the Tim Cole Memorial Park

Saturday, November 8, 2014

As I Walked Out in the Streets of Lubbock, or, What's In a Street Name?

Like many cities in the flat central portion of the United States, Lubbock is laid out in an orderly grid system. The streets are straight and wide, and for the most part they cross each other at perfect right angles. One of the first things my wife Karen commented on when we moved to Lubbock was how wide the streets are. The street naming system is designed to make navigating the city easy. East-west streets are numbered, and north-south avenues are alphabetical, named after trees on the east side of the city, the letters of the alphabet (Avenue A, etc.), and then on the west side, cities east of the Mississippi River (Albany, Boston, Canton, etc.).

This was in stark contrast to Charlotte, NC, where we had lived for the last fourteen years. Charlotte streets always seemed to me a tangled mess, twisting, weaving, rising and falling, often narrow, changing names unpredictably. Having grown up with Lubbock's orderly street system, even after more than a decade in Charlotte, I still often got disoriented trying to navigate around the city. I never felt that I knew which direction I was facing. To make matters worse, there is no rhyme or reason to the street naming system in Charlotte. With the exception of a handful of numbered streets in the downtown area, Charlotte streets are assigned names pretty much at random. Without a map or a GPS system, there is no way to find an address on an unfamiliar street without asking for directions.

There have, of course, always been exceptions to Lubbock's orderly street naming system. Until 1993, one of the major streets on Lubbock's east side was called Quirt Avenue. According to Webster's Dictionary, a quirt is "a riding whip with a short handle and a rawhide lash." The origin of this street name is unclear, although it probably refered to the whips used by Spanish settlers as they herded their cattle across the Texas range. However, the name became problematic in the 1960s as Lubbock's African American population became increasingly concentrated in the neighborhood that Quirt Avenue crossed. Whatever the origin of the name, a street named after a whip was a constant reminder of slavery all that was associated with it.

Starting in the 1970s, several petitions were presented to the Lubbock city council requesting that the name of Quirt Avenue be changed. Finally, in 1993, the council voted unanimously to approve the latest petition, and the name of the street was changed to Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, to honor the slain civil rights leader. The change thankfully reversed a decade's long insult to Lubbock's African-American community. It also set a precedent that opened the door to further changes in the city's street naming system, as Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard was the first street in Lubbock to be named after a person.

Since M.L.K. Jr. Blvd, there have been several other Lubbock street names changed to honor people. Mexican-American labor activist Cesar Chavez was given a street in Lubbock's predominantly Hispanic north side in 2008.

Other streets have been named for people, living or dead, who were born in or have a direct connection to Lubbock. The first of these, in 1996, was Buddy Holly Avenue, formerly a stretch of Avenue H running through downtown Lubbock.

Buddy Holly, Lubbock's most famous resident, was, of course, one of the founding fathers of rock-and-roll music. Before his life was tragically cut short by a plane crash on February 3, 1959 (the day the music died), Holly, with his band the Crickets, pioneered a style that helped bridge the divide between country and rhythm-and-blues, between "white" and "black" music. He influenced the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and numerous other rock performers who came after him. He was one of the first rock musicians to write and produce his own songs. Today, a museum, the Buddy Holly Center, and a statue of the singer stand at the corner of 19th Street and Buddy Avenue. This mural adorns the wall of a business across the street:

Two more Lubbock artists have been honored with street names. In terms of creative significance, most would argue that Mac Davis can hardly be placed in the same league with Buddy Holly. However, the Lubbock native who wrote several hits for Elvis Presley before enjoying a successful singing and television career in the 1970s, was given a section of 6th Street from University Avenue to Avenue Q.

And in 2005, visual artist Glenna Goodacre, a Lubbock native, was honored with a section of 8th Street, also running from University Avenue to Avenue Q. Goodacre is a prolific sculptor probably best know for designing the obverse side of the Sacagewea dollar and the Vietnam Women's Memorial in Washington, DC.

The Marsh Sharp Freeway, a segment of US Highway 82 that cuts an east-west path through Lubbock, honors the former head coach of the Texas Tech women's basketball team. Under Sharp's leadership from 1982-2006, the Lady Raiders won several conference titles and the NCAA national championship in 1993.

Photo from Marsha Sharp's Wikipedia page, cropped

There will certainly be more opportunities in the future to honor people who have in some way brought recognition to Lubbock through their contributions to society. I have a few suggestions for future Lubbock street names:

  • Barry Corbin was born in Lamesa, south of Lubbock, but graduated from Lubbock Monterey high school and Texas Tech University. He is a prominent TV and film actor probably best known as the astronaut Maurice Minnifield on the television series Northern Exposure. He is also a rancher and skilled and avid horseman, who appears regularly at the annual National Cowboy Symposium and Celebration held each September in Lubbock.
  • The Lubbock Lake Landmark, in a canyon in the northwest part of the city, features a physical record of uninterrupted occupation by humans that covers the last 12 thousand years. In honor of the earliest of the human cultures recorded at this archeological site, the Clovis culture, I suggest "Clovis Person Avenue" as an appropriate name for a street adjacent to the Lubbock Lake Landmark.
  • Finally, one that probably won't be adopted for some years to come, Natalie Maines is the daughter of local musician Lloyd Maines, a graduate of Lubbock High School, and was for a short time the lead singer of the Dixie Chicks, one of the most successful country music groups of all time. Her career took a nosedive when she had the courage to speak her mind, an action not generally recommended in the world of country music.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

What it's not about

This is not a Lubbock booster page. I have no intention of recommending places to eat or shop or have a beer, or what is the best neighborhood to live in, or the best school to send your kids to. I am not part of the upscale social scene in this city, nor do I have any desire to be. I do not count myself as part of the business or political community. Apart from a small circle of family, friends and coworkers, few people in this city would recognize my name. I am just one person among 239,538 (2013 est.) trying to get by from paycheck to paycheck.

This is not an entertainment, arts, or popular culture blog. However, I will write about Lubbock's cultural and artistic heritage as it contributes to the character of the city.

It also will not be a political blog, although I will certainly write about politics, particularly the experience of being a liberal in one of the most conservatives cities in the United States.

Mostly, this blog will be a form of therapy. I don't know where it will go from here, or if it will attract any readers. I'd like to think that I might say something that will be of some interest to others, and it will be nice if this happens. But my primary goal is to use this blog to learn about my hometown, to discover the good, the bad, and the indifferent about this city, and most importantly, to gain some insight into how Lubbock has shaped who I am, has influenced my life, my successes and failures, my personality and my relationships, and my outlook on life.

I also want to use this blog to develop as a writer. Since childhood, I have wanted to write. Since I was in high school, there have been people in my life who have encouraged me to write. I have occasionally started projects, including an aborted attempt at a novel and a blog about squirrels that I still occasionally post on, but have rarely followed through. This is the latest attempt, and one that I think offers a lot of possibilities.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

What's it all about?

In short, this blog is about my hometown, Lubbock, Texas. I intend to discuss the histoy, geography, climate, politics, art and popular culture of Lubbock and the surrounding area. I also will blog about the feelings and impressions, good and bad, that surround my most recent return to a city that I can't seem to seem to tear myself away from.

Downtown Lubbock, from the city's Wikipedia page

My adult life has seen a series of departures from and returns to Lubbock. With each time that I have moved away, I have been increasingly certain that I was leaving for the last time. Each time that I have returned, it has been with mixed feelings. To be sure, there are things that I dislike about Lubbock: The sparse, flat geography, the dry, windy, often dusty climate, the conservative politics and religious fundamentalism. But if I search hard enough, there are things that I like and even admire about this place. There is beauty in the austerity of the landscape, if you are willing to look for it in the wide open spaces and vast skies. Although the political conservatism of the city, and the state of Texas, often rubs me the wrong way, I nevertheless find a friendliness in the people here that is refreshing. And although Lubbock has a reputation as a boring city with little to offer in the way of entertainment, there are cultural and artistic opportunities that belie that reputation.

A Brief Background Sketch

My family moved to Lubbock in 1972 when I was eight years old, when my mother took a faculty position at Texas Tech University. I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood, enjoyed what I would consider a fairly normal childhood, until I left for college in San Antonio at the age of 18.

Clapp Park, where I spent much of my childhood

After graduating from Trinity University in 1986, I returned to Lubbock, where I spent the next five years working in a sandwich shop while I earned my Master's Degree in anthropology from Texas Tech. Then I left Lubbock, for the second time, to earn my PhD at the University of Georgia. After three years in Athens, GA, I spent one year in a temporary teaching job at Radford University in Virginia. Then, in 1995, I once again returned to Lubbock, where I spent the next two years living with my mother, working on my dissertation and looking for an academic position.

During those two years, my life took a dramatic turn. During that period in the mid-1990s, when the internet was just beginning to take its place as a part of American life, I met online, and fell in love with, Karen. In 1997 I moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, and we married in October of that year. Soon after, I adopted Karen's son Kaleb, who was five years old when we married. I took a job with GE Capital, where I worked for the next twelve years.

Another major milestone in my family's life took place in 2010, when I was laid off from my job at GE. As a major banking center, Charlotte, NC was not a good place to be unemployed during the Great Recession. At this time, my mother was preparing to move to a retirement community and offered to let us live in her house--the same house that I had grown up in, She hoped to avoid the hassle of trying to sell the house, and, as she pointed out, Lubbock offered a stronger economy and a much lower unemployment rate than Charlotte. After a year and a half of searching for a new job, and facing the expiration of my unemployment benefits, we made the difficult decision to accept her offer and to move to Lubbock.

A winter day on our front patio
Being back in Lubbock with my family, living in my childhood home, has produced mixed feelings. I have a job working for a nonprofit company that provides services for the hard of hearing, and while this job is more enjoyable and rewarding than what I was doing in North Carolina, I make only slightly more than half what I earned before. My wife and son, who had both spent their entire lives living in eastern coast states, have obviously had to make adjustments to their new home.

I will discuss at greater length in this blog the specifics of what I like and dislike about my hometown, and how growing up in Lubbock has made me who I am, for better or worse.