Mini-Stories: Volume 7

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
It’s the end of the year and it’s time for our annual mini-stories episodes. Maybe if I knew five years ago that these episodes would become an audience favorite and we’d do them every single year, I might’ve come up with a better name than “mini-stories”, but here we are. You gotta dance with the girl that brung ya. Mini-stories are fun, quick-hit stories that maybe came up in our research for another episode or it was just some cool thing someone told us about and we found really interesting, but they didn’t quite warrant a full episode and two months of hard reporting, but they are great, 99pi stories nonetheless. And my favorite part is we do them as unscripted interviews where I’m in the studio interviewing the people who work on this show, who I like an awful lot. Sometimes I know a little bit about what they’re going to talk about and sometimes I know nothing. It is very fun, especially for me. This week we have stories about mistaken identity, unreachable, iconic tour destinations, haunted architecture, and of course raccoons. Stay with us.

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Roman Mars:
So I’m in the studio with Emmett FitzGerald and I’m told you have a story about a park.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Yes, a park in Ottawa, Canada called Jack Purcell Park. And it’s a pretty ordinary looking park in many ways. It’s a little pocket park with some grass and trees, community center. But there’s one kind of distinctive feature I would say to the park, which is the light fixtures. So take a look at this picture.

Roman Mars:
So it looks like they’re about eight feet tall. There’s a post and an oval on top of it, kind of looks like lollipops or a tennis racket or something like that.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Yeah okay. So hold that thought. So back in 2014, a reporter for the Ottawa Citizen named Matthew Pearson stumbled upon these strange looking lights.

Matthew Pearson:
So I was new as a City Hall correspondent at the time and I asked the city councilor and she just said you should do some digging and you should go visit the city archives and look up Jack Purcell.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
And so that’s what Matthew did. He went to the city archives to try to figure out who was this guy that the park was named after because maybe that would give us some clue as to why these lights look this way. And pretty quickly he learned that Jack Purcell was just kind of a regular local guy who was known around the neighborhood for fixing hockey sticks back in the fifties and sixties.

Matthew Pearson:
The Jack Purcell for whom the park is named is a man who lived in Ottawa, he was a postal worker and he was nicknamed the ‘stick doctor’ because he was really good at and liked repairing broken hockey sticks in his basement for kids who played probably street hockey in the neighborhood. And when I went to the city archives to read about him, I found out that in one hockey season alone, he mended 175 sticks.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
It’s funny, maybe this is just the American in me, but naming a park and a community center after a local man known for generously repairing children’s hockey sticks feels like so amazingly Canadian.

Matthew Pearson:
That’s kind of you.

Roman Mars:
Oh, that’s so sweet. Well, what a great person to honor, but I can’t quite figure out how to connect the lollipops to repairing hockey sticks.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Yeah, it doesn’t, it doesn’t make sense. But try Googling Jack Purcell.

Roman Mars:
Okay. So it says Jack Purcell – John Edward Jack Purcell – was a Canadian world champion badminton player. Purcell was the Canadian national badminton champion in 1929 and 1930, declared world champion in 1933. Even has a shoe named after him from Converse. So those are badminton rackets.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
They are badminton rackets. And this is a different Jack Purcell who also happens to be a Canadian athlete.

Roman Mars:
Oh my goodness.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
But he is not the Jack Purcell that the park was named after. You have these lighting fixtures that are very lovingly designed in honor of the wrong Jack Purcell. And Matthew reported that in total they cost about $50,000. The city counselor who tipped Matthew Pearson off to this whole thing…

Matthew Pearson:
He said to me, I think he just Googled Jack Purcell and the only thing that comes up is the badminton player. The Ottawa hockey stick helper-outer of kids doesn’t come up on Google.

Roman Mars:
I mean that’s a real lesson in research. We come across that type of thing all the time too. Basically it’s like Wikipedia is this great resource, but sometimes they don’t have entries for the kind postal carrier who repairs hockey sticks. And so the designer of these lights, they admitted that that is what they were following?

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Yeah, so Matthew talked with the designers and they admitted that initially, they had, at least, they had designed the lights in honor of badminton Jack Purcell. And in fact-

Matthew Pearson:
The original design called for the racket-shaped light fixtures to be strung like real rackets, but that part of the plan was nixed-

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Presumably when they figured out their mistake. Although, it gets a little sticky here, but the designers told Matthew that at that point they had completely redesigned the light fixtures to look like stylized trees. Although I think to Matthew and kind of anyone looking at them, they still look pretty suspiciously like unstrung badminton rackets.

Matthew Pearson:
Basically, what I’m saying, Emmett, is that I don’t think people bought the suggestion that they were stylized trees.

Roman Mars:
So, I can see how they would get confused and maybe make these lights. And they are stylized enough. They’re pretty so it makes sense to choose them. But how did someone from the city government not notice and how did it get through?

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Yeah. I mean, I had this question too and Matthew isn’t exactly sure about that, but the more I think about it, the more I think it’s totally possible that the people who commissioned the park redesign and looked at those plans also didn’t know which Jack Purcell the park was named after.

Roman Mars:
Which makes sense because he’s a world-class Canadian athlete, right?

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Totally. Like if you were, if you were going to design a park after, like a recreation center named after a person named Jack Purcell and there happens to be a very famous Canadian athlete named Jack Purcell, it hardly seems unreasonable that that would be what the park was named after. And in fact, back in 2014, Matthew reported that one of badminton Jack Purcell’s great-granddaughters, like several family members of badminton Jack, heard about the park and they took a visit and people on staff there told them that the park was named after a local man who repaired hockey sticks and was also a world champion badminton player.

Roman Mars:
So no one knows the story. Everyone’s confused in this story.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Yeah, exactly.

Roman Mars:
That’s amazing.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
And the more I talked to Matthew, I think when I first heard this story, I was like, ‘Oh those idiot designers.’ But the more I thought about it, I mean it’s just I have total sympathy. They made a mistake. At the same time, at least they were actually trying to figure out who Jack Purcell was and base the design off of this character. And it just seems pretty reasonable to me that a community center and park in Canada would be named after a famous Canadian athlete, this famous Canadian badminton champion.

Matthew Pearson:
If the park had been named for the badminton player, you couldn’t come up with a better lamppost light fixture feature than they do.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
They really look like badminton rackets. Yeah. They look like badminton rackets.

Matthew Pearson:
They are not, they don’t look like stylized trees.

Roman Mars:
I think you’re right to have sympathy for the designers because the client should tell you what the significance of the person is that they’re honoring and I think that was their responsibility.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Yeah. To me, it’s just a story about the way legend builds and I love the idea that if Matthew hadn’t broken this story for the Ottawa Citizen that in like 200 years in the future, there’s just a truth that is ‘there’s this amazing Canadian who was both a hockey stick mender and a badminton champion and he has rec centers named after him or throughout the city.’ But things like that I’m sure happened.

Roman Mars:
I do not doubt it. That’s amazing. What a great modern-day example of that type of thing of a historic monument setting people’s minds as to how someone or something should be remembered. The stick doctor became the greatest badminton player in the world just because of a monument.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Right. He’s got a shoe named after him.

Roman Mars:
That’s awesome. Well, thanks so much, Emmett.

Emmett Fitzgerald:
Thank you.

Roman Mars:
That’s producer Emmett Fitzgerald. Thanks to a listener named Nancy Norton who wrote in with the story of Jack Purcell Park.

Roman Mars:
Up next, Chris Berube.

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Roman Mars:
So I’m now talking with Chris Berube who is in Canada actually, doesn’t work in Oakland.

Chris Berube:
Yes, I am. That’s right. And actually, Roman, it is cold here. I don’t know if you knew this about Canada at this time of year.

Roman Mars:
I suspected as much.

Chris Berube:
So Roman, I actually have a story for you that is about the Hollywood sign, which I think is just me taking like a vacation of the mind by doing a story about Los Angeles right now. Do you know the whole story of the Hollywood sign? Do you know how it started?

Roman Mars:
Not exactly. I do remember that it used to be Hollywood Land. That’s the only thing I can really recall.

Chris Berube:
That’s right. It started in the 1920s. It was actually a real estate ad. When they built the Hollywood sign, it was supposed to get people to move into the Hollywood Land neighborhood and then over time they left it up. It sort of became this icon. Actually, it really fell into disrepair in the 70s, so I sent you a photo if you want to take a look at it.

Roman Mars:
Okay. Oh wow. You mean really falling into disrepair. There’s basically no H, O, two of the Os are almost completely down. It’s a disaster. I had no idea it’d gotten that bad.

Chris Berube:
Yeah. It looks like a tornado actually came through and demolished it basically, and it was just kind of rotting on the side of Mount Lee for a long time. And then a bunch of celebrities came together, led by Hugh Hefner. There was a huge fundraising drive. Actually Hefner saved the Hollywood sign twice.

News Clip:
“It was Playboy Enterprises founder Hugh Hefner who guaranteed success. Back in 1978, Hefner had led the effort to rebuild the tattered Hollywood sign. This time he provided the final $900,000 to preserve the land to the west of it.”

Roman Mars:
Wow.

Chris Berube:
Say what you will of Hugh Hefner, I know there’s complicated feelings about that guy, but he is responsible for the Hollywood sign as we know it.

Arnold Schwarzenegger::
“The Hollywood sign would welcome dreamers and artists and Austrian bodybuilders from around the world to continue coming over here for generations to come.”

Chris Berube:
So the Hollywood sign becomes this icon. Tourists come from everywhere to see it and you can kind of see the Hollywood sign in a lot of parts of LA just driving around. You’ll look and you’ll be like, ‘Oh there’s the sign.’ But lots of people come to LA and they really just want to get close to it. Right? Like they want to get up close, they want to have a selfie with it. But the problem with the Hollywood sign as a tourist destination is that it’s actually really hard to get to. So the Hollywood sign is on top of a mountain and the mountain is in Griffith Park. So to get there you actually have to park somewhere and then you have to like do a whole elaborate hike up to the sign to get like a really good close up view of it.

Roman Mars:
I see, I see. So you can’t drive that close to it. So what do tourists end up doing? Where do they park to go there?

Chris Berube:
Well, for years they actually didn’t really do anything. Tourists would show up in LA, they’d ask people where’s the Hollywood sign? And then someone would be like, well, you have to park here and then you have to do this whole hike. And then often people would just give up.

Sarahjane Schwartz:
People wouldn’t come up here. They wouldn’t know how to get around our neighborhood.

Chris Berube:
So this is Sarahjane Schwartz. She’s an actress. She’s lived in the Beachwood Canyon neighborhood for over 40 years. So her home is right under the Hollywood sign.

Sarahjane Schwartz:
You maybe have somebody ask you once a month, how do you get to the sign? And you talk to them for 20 minutes. You’d ask where they were and they tell you about their life. And you were friendly and very hospitable to tourists because they were a rarity.

Chris Berube:
But Sarahjane says around 2005 two big things happened that changed everything. So the first was GPS came around, so suddenly everybody had a map in their pocket. So if you wanted to figure out a way to get up to the Hollywood sign, you could just consult the map on your phone and you always had a way to figure out where you were. And then the second thing was the rise of articles and YouTube videos.

YouTube Clip:
“Hey guys, I’m Amber and welcome to the top of the Hollywood sign. How cool is this? This is one of my favorite hikes in all of LA. So today I’m going to show you just how to get here. Let’s go.”

Roman Mars:
Amber seems excited.

Chris Berube:
Yes, she’s going up to the Hollywood sign, man. She’s having a great day.

Roman Mars:
That’s a perfect day.

YouTube Clip:
“All right guys, so it’s super early because we decided to do a sunrise hike, but getting started, this is where you park. Granted it’s LA, so make sure you read the street signs, but you can just park anywhere along this residential neighborhood and you should be good. All right, ready? Let’s get started.”

Roman Mars:
So it’s 6:00 AM and they’re instructing people to park in a residential neighborhood.

Chris Berube:
Yeah. And guess what? That’s Sarahjane’s neighborhood. That trailhead that is being recommended is like right where Sarahjane lives. So just all of a sudden everything changed overnight in her neighborhood.

Sarahjane Schwartz:
You have groups of people. I mean you even sometimes have groups of 25, 30 people walking in a street with no sidewalk, a narrow street.

Chris Berube:
So she said like a lot of these tourists were cool, but definitely not all of them. So people would urinate on lawns, she said at some point someone actually hit her car and she started filming bad behavior by tourists in her neighborhood.

Sarahjane Schwartz:
I have a film about our neighborhood. It’s only a half-hour long. It has been a struggle to keep it at a half hour. I have hours and hours and hours of footage, people breaking the law and gridlock streets. And whenever I put anything new in, I tried to take something out.

Roman Mars:
Have you seen this video?

Chris Berube:
I was not actually allowed to see the video, so she doesn’t post it online because she’s worried about people finding out where she lives. But I’ve been told it’s really dramatic. They actually have all this footage set to Stravinsky’s ballet, ‘The Rite of Spring’. That’s like the most dramatic music you can imagine. So it’s not just peeing in yards and stuff. There’s all that bad behavior but Sarahjane says her biggest worry has always been fires. She’s in Southern California, she’s near a lot of dry brush-

Sarahjane Schwartz:
And while California was having these horrible fires, I look across the street and I see somebody smoking in front of my house.

Roman Mars:
Huh. So what has she done about this?

Chris Berube:
So Sarahjane, her full-time occupation now is being an advocate for less tourist access to the Hollywood sign. She wants the city to stop promoting it as a tourist destination. Many of her neighbors were also part of this campaign and some of them started going a little too far.

Roman Mars:
What do you mean?

Chris Berube:
You remember we did this episode about informal interventions? So like informal urbanism, like people kind of taking things into their own hands. So some of Sarahjane’s neighbors were doing things like painting curbs red to indicate there’s no parking, putting up signs that said things like there is no access to the Hollywood sign here. And I saw one that just said, no tourists zones, tourist must leave, which is pretty aggressive.

Roman Mars:
And it’s not a legal sign clearly.

Chris Berube:
No, absolutely not. And here’s the biggest one. So Roman, I need you to pull out your phone right now and pull up the mapping software on your phone. So type in the Hollywood sign and then ask for directions from anywhere else in LA. So like LA City Hall.

Roman Mars:
Okay. Hollywood sign directions. You go up the 101, you get off on Vermont Avenue and then it brings you basically to the Griffith Observatory.

Chris Berube:
That’s right. So you probably know the Griffith Observatory. It’s a famous LA landmark, was in Lala Land and lots of other pop culture, but it’s not the Hollywood sign. It is a 75-minute walk from the Hollywood sign. So people in the neighborhood and the city counselor actually petitioned Google and lots of other mapping softwares and got the location of the Hollywood sign changed on the maps. Alyssa Walker, who’s a writer at ‘Curbed’, she wrote a whole piece in 2014 where she found that it’s true of like all the big mapping softwares that they do not send you to the Hollywood sign. So clearly this campaign was pretty effective.

Roman Mars:
So, even though it says Hollywood sign, I see the marker for Hollywood sign, but it’s letting you off at a place where you can see the Hollywood sign from the Griffith Observatory, not where you could actually walk to the Hollywood sign. Wow.

Chris Berube:
Exactly. And the argument is it’s sending tourists to somewhere that has like a view of the Hollywood sign and that’s what people want, right? But actually I sent you another photo. If you take a look, this is a photo of the view of the Hollywood sign from the Griffith Observatory.

Roman Mars:
It’s teeny tiny.

Chris Berube:
Yeah, it’s really small. You can barely see it. I don’t know if this is a bad photo or this is typical, but the one I sent you is really small.

Chris Berube:
So we should do the other favorite trick with this, which is type in the directions from the Hollywood sign to the Griffith Observatory and see what the map does.

Roman Mars:
Okay, here we go. And it just loops around.

Chris Berube:
Yeah. It just tells you to drive in a circle for five minutes.

Roman Mars:
Wow. That’s amazing. That is remarkable. I feel conflicted about this because I do understand, it can be difficult to be there if there’s lots of people there that the infrastructure wasn’t there to support a bunch of tourists in a residential neighborhood. But you know, I’m a big believer in public resources and that we should allow people to walk through places that are public land and all kinds of other things like that. So-

Chris Berube:
Well, exactly. And I mean when you think about it on a bigger level, it’s a story about people trying to protect a tourist destination from tourists, right? Like trying to send people to the wrong place. I mean there’s like a lot of criticism of Sarahjane and the people in this neighborhood that they’re being NIMBYs.

Sarahjane Schwartz:
People are really quick to say, oh this is just NIMBY-ism, when it’s not. There are huge, huge safety issues here.

Roman Mars:
Like, I am somewhat sympathetic because I do recognize when there’s a special event in my neighborhood and cars like overrun the neighborhood and make it more difficult to be in. But this seems like this is just part of being in a city. There are places that people want to go and if you are in a place that’s desirable, people show up. So I’m really torn about this, but I think I’m kind of pro-roaming. We’re a show that is, our stance has been pro-roaming in general. So what happens now?

Chris Berube:
So Sarahjane, her side actually won a victory. The railhead near her house has been closed down. It closed down in 2017 so she says that’s actually limited the number of people who come by, she only sees about 30 or 50 tourists every day now. But there are people trying to come up with some kind of a bigger solution because this has been going on for at this point, close to 10 years. So some of the solutions being thrown out are maybe moving the Hollywood sign to Universal Studios. One really creative solution that’s being proposed is to put up a gondola that actually takes people all the way up to the sign.

Roman Mars:
I am pro-gondola. That is the perfect solution. No contest.

Chris Berube:
Right? I mean it’s a good solution. I think the one issue with it is people say it might cost $100 million to build this gondola. So Warner Brothers said they might be interested – the movie studio – I don’t know. It’s in the pretty early planning stages right now.

Roman Mars:
Oh my God. Seriously. If you can fix a problem with a funicular, you fixed the problem the best way possible. I love that. Oh, Oh my God. Oh, I love it. I love it. I do not care if there’s a big tower in the way or whatever it is to make that happen. That needs to happen. Well, I’m so glad we came to a happy ending. Even if it’s hypothetical.

Chris Berube:
If not in real life, then at least in our minds, this is the perfect solution to this whole thing.

Roman Mars:
Oh, I look forward to taking the gondola to the Hollywood sign someday.

Chris Berube:
The Roman Mars Memorial Gondola.

Roman Mars:
Oh, what a joy that would be. Thanks for the story.

Chris Berube:
Thank you, Roman.

Roman Mars:
That’s producer, Chris Berube.

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Roman Mars:
So I’m in the studio with Vivian Le and you’re going to tell us what kind of story.

Vivian Le:
So this is actually a Christmas present for one of the staff members here at 99pi and I’m sure you’re going to guess who it’s for when I get there. So there’s this famous Buddhist temple in Kyoto called Byōdō-in and it’s been standing for basically a thousand years. It’s a world heritage site and it’s so iconic that it’s even on the back of the 10 yen coin, but it’s under attack.

Roman Mars:
By whom?

Vivian Le:
Raccoons. The attic of Byōdō-in is actually infested with raccoons.

Roman Mars:
Then I know who this story is for. This is for our own Kurt Kholstedt. He loves raccoons.

Vivian Le:
True story, when I first joined on staff, I said that my spirit animal was raccoons and he flipped out and sent me like tons of pictures of raccoons. I was like, this is actually a lifestyle for you. It’s not just a thing.

Roman Mars:
He takes it very seriously. So we did a story a little bit ago about the green bins in Toronto and how they were made raccoon-proof. So now we have a temple that they’re trying to destroy.

Vivian Le:
Yes. They’re just like the Raptors in Jurassic Park where they’re learning how to open doors and they’re escalating. But I mentioned Byōdō-in off the top, but about 80% of the temples in Japan have suffered some form of raccoon damage, which is huge.

Roman Mars:
Wow. So aside from getting into the garbage, what kind of damage can a raccoon do to a temple?

Vivian Le:
So they’re scratching up these ancient wood pillars that have been standing since the 11th century. They punch holes in the ceilings and they tear apart wires and tiles and they just- since there are wild animals, they will crap everywhere too. But the thing is, the raccoon menace is actually a relatively new phenomenon in Japan because up until the 1970s there weren’t any wild raccoons in Japan.

Roman Mars:
Wow. That’s, that’s not that long ago. And they’re already doing significant amount of damage.

Vivian Le:
So here’s the thing, you can actually pinpoint the raccoon explosion to a single cause. And that was a cartoon.

Roman Mars:
Oh wow. Okay. I got to know what this is about.

Vivian Le:
Okay. So in 1963, an American writer named Sterling North released a memoir about his childhood called ‘Rascal: A Memoir of a Better Era’. And this took place in rural Wisconsin and he came from kind of like a frontiersman type family and he spent a lot of time in the wilderness. But the book was mostly about him and his best friend which was a spunky baby raccoon named Rascal. And they would do all sorts of things together like build canoes and enter pie-eating contests and it was adorable. And Disney actually adapted North’s memoir into a 1969 live-action movie called ‘Rascal’ and I want to show you a quick clip of the hi-jinks that rascal would get into.

[Rascal Clip Plays]

Roman Mars:
Rascal got into a lot of trouble.

Vivian Le:
He did, yeah. And for listeners, that was the sound of a raccoon being dropped from the ceiling onto a woman’s head. A live raccoon.

Roman Mars:
That seems like a very simple and ridiculous premise for a movie. Was his movie somehow big in Japan or something?

Vivian Le:
No, not really, actually. Because in 1977 Nippon Animation in Japan adapted North’s novel, his memoir. So they actually adapted it into this adorable anime series called ‘Araiguma Rasukaru’ and it’s so cute that I want to die and I’m gonna play you the titles and you’re going to have to cut me off cause I will let it play forever.

[Araiguma Rasukaru Clip Plays]

Roman Mars:
Ah, he’s drinking soda pop. Running through a field. He’s a fat raccoon.

Vivian Le:
He’s a big guy. He’s a big ol’ boy.

Roman Mars:
Okay. Since people can’t actually see this, maybe I should cut you off at this point.

Vivian Le:
I could listen to that song all day.

Roman Mars:
Oh, that was delightful.

Vivian Le:
I kind of want to add that song to like my workout playlist. So in 1977 when this anime debuts in Japan, it’s a sensation. And I actually have a friend that grew up in Japan around this time and I asked her just to kind of explain to me how popular this was. I was like, can you translate it to American terms? And she’s like, Rascal was slightly less popular than Mickey Mouse, but much more popular than SpongeBob.

Roman Mars:
That’s very popular. That’s crazy.

Vivian Le:
Yes, it’s really popular and it’s so cute. So kids love this show and Rascal’s so cute that it makes raccoons look like really fun companions. So Japanese families started importing baby raccoons from North America to Japan to keep his pets in their homes.

Roman Mars:
Oh, no.

Vivian Le:
And they’re bringing in as many as 1,500 raccoons a year.

Roman Mars:
Wow.

Vivian Le:
And I couldn’t find the exact number of how many were imported, but this took place over multiple years before the Japanese government had to step in and ban importation. So at least a few thousand were introduced into the country.

Roman Mars:
And so I take it that some of these pet raccoons got out and then made baby raccoons and then wild raccoons took over.

Vivian Le:
Yes. But also, here’s the thing. So if you read the end of Sterling North’s autobiography, he comes to the conclusion that raccoons are not good pets because they are wild animals and they become aggressive and as they get older, they will destroy your house. So at the end of his memoir, North decides to release Rascal back into the wilderness because it’s the right thing to do. And that’s totally fine for him because he’s in Wisconsin.

Vivian Le:
But a lot of the people in Japan also ended up releasing their pet raccoons and in the wilderness, which is bad because they’re an invasive species with basically no predators. So now they’re destroying crops and they’re ruining ancient temples. And kind of the worst part about this is that they’re endangering their Japanese raccoon doppelganger, the tanuki, because they have this food competition.

Roman Mars:
Oh, so it’s like displacing a native species that takes the place of a raccoon in Japan.

Vivian Le:
Yes. So sad.

Roman Mars:
I’ve never heard of a tanuki. That’s amazing.

Vivian Le:
Oh, those are cute. Those will be my new spirit animal.

Roman Mars:
I mean I feel like I’ve heard other stuff like this in pop culture, so when collies were really big in the seventies when I was a kid, because of Lassie and then after Harry Potter, people really wanted owls, which is not something that’s easy to care for either, but it usually doesn’t result in something being an invasive species. It’s just is a bad idea.

Vivian Le:
Exactly, it just ends up with more animals in shelters. But the thing is, I was a child of the Pokemon generation and if Pikachus were a real thing and an invasive species, I would definitely be shipping Pikachus into the country and they would destroy the grid and I would not care. I would not care.

Roman Mars:
They’re too cute.

Vivian Le:
So one weird part of this whole situation is that the place is being hit the hardest by these raccoons and this raccoon damage are these Buddhist temples and shrines and they’re really, really hard to restore because they’re ancient buildings. You can’t really replicate this kind of architecture. But the most effective way to control invasive species populations is eradication, and if you know anything about Buddhism, one of the core philosophies of Buddhism is that you can never harm a living creature.

Vivian Le:
So it’s this like weird pickle that Buddhist monks have to be in where it’s like, do you protect the temple or these raccoon species?

Roman Mars:
Wow, that is a tough choice because you don’t want to kill raccoons, obviously. So what did they, what did they end up doing?

Vivian Le:
So there was this special on PBS from 2012 called ‘Raccoons Gone Wild’ that featured the Japanese temple problem. And it’s great. You should probably check it out. It’s fun. But I’m going to just play you a clip of a conclusion that they come to.

PBS Clip:
“These masked aliens have no natural predators here. So the Japanese, including the monks, have adopted a zero-tolerance policy. Every year in Japan, over 10,000 raccoons are trapped then killed.”

Roman Mars:
Whoa. So even the pacifist Buddhist monks, they’re going after the raccoons. They kill the raccoons.

Vivian Le:
Yup. And now that I think about it, a story about murdering his favorite animal probably was a bad Christmas present for Kurt. So, sorry about that Kurt.

Roman Mars:
Oh, poor little guys. That whole situation is horrible.

Vivian Le:
Yeah, it’s not their fault.

Roman Mars:
No, no, not at all. But they, you know, you can’t have invasive species. You can’t introduce them. And even if they’re cute, that’s just, it’s an important lesson. Well, thanks for that story. I had no idea about that story. Thank you so much.

Vivian Le:
Thank you.

Roman Mars:
We have one more mini-story about the things we build to appease the spirit world. After this.

——————————————

Roman Mars:
I’m in the studio with Kurt Kohlstedt and we’ve talked about a number of different regional vernacular designs over the years, including the Hills Hoist of Australia, the clothesline that is in every suburban backyard in Australia, and is like the pride of Australia.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
And joy.

Roman Mars:
And the German tilt and turn windows, which is the pride of Kurt Kholstedt, and he did Japanese kotatsu tables. But you’ve been accumulating a collection of even weirder, more esoteric vernacular designs that are equally interesting, but just a little bit stranger.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yes. Yeah, just a little bit different. And we often talk about regional designs and architecture and how it’s shaped by weather, or available materials, or building codes, or things like that. But this subset of designs is culturally-specific and it’s less associated with — I’m not even sure how to say it exactly — but let’s say tangible reasoning.

Roman Mars:
Right, right. So, we’re talking about things like designs that are for warding off ghosts or appeasing spirits or otherwise dealing with figures of myths and legends. And one of my favorites is something that’s called a witch window, which is a type of fenestration, it’s mostly found in the Northeastern United States. I think I’ve seen them in Vermont. And I just want to be clear, when we talk about witch windows, we’re talking about witches, like green skin, wart, flying-on-broomstick witches. And these windows are supposedly designed for them or to ward them off?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Right, right. So these are witches flying around on broomsticks and the idea is that witches can’t pass through these tilted windows to get into buildings. And there’s nothing else about this window that says, ‘witch’. They’re just angled in such a way that they align with the slopes of roofs rather than straight edges of walls and floors.

Roman Mars:
It’s hard to imagine that witches caused these windows, so other explanations as to why they might exist and then maybe the term witch window was applied to them after the fact?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah. There are definitely other theories about these and there are other names for them too. So, one of those names is coffin windows. And so that might suggest that it was a design choice that would let caskets pass into an out of upper stories of buildings. There’s also very simple explanations like maybe it’s just about getting in more natural light. It’s just a simple hack to fit in full-sized windows between different levels of angled rooftops where they wouldn’t otherwise fit.

Roman Mars:
Right. So in both of those explanations, what you’re trying to get is as big a window as possible. And because there’s another roof that’s a small story, like an attic or something, you put in a full-size window at a tilt so that it lines up with the slope of the roof and therefore it can be the biggest window possible. So you can get a coffin out of it, or you can get more light into it, or anything like that.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Or you can keep witches out.

Roman Mars:
Or you can keep witches out. And so, these types of architectural flourishes that are meant to ward off spirits, this is not unique to the witches of New England. They’re all over the South too?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Oh yeah, yeah. In the American South you can find, for example, blue paint on the ceilings of porches and that’s called ‘haint paint’. This is said, by some, to ward off ghosts or spirits and the idea here is that spirits will maybe confuse the blue for water. And since they don’t want to pass over water, they’ll stay out.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Or another theory that runs in parallel is that they’ll confuse it for sky and because they can’t fly in the sky, they’ll fly up towards it instead of flying into your house.

Roman Mars:
I lived in the South for a long time and I was always told that the blue paint on a roof was to attract mosquitoes away from you sitting on the porch and they would go up to the blue in the ceiling.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Well yeah, so there’s a couple of theories that involve mosquitoes too. And one is that, essentially, yeah, they confuse the blue for sky like the ghosts would and they fly up instead of towards you. And another one is that essentially because blue paint used to be made with lye, which is this caustic material, that it actually worked as an insect repellent altogether so it would just keep mosquitoes away from you. And then there’s aesthetic reasons too, Victorian traditions of painting houses in natural colors. There’s all kinds of reasons that this could have started as a tradition.

Roman Mars:
Right. So it’s fair to say that some of these stories might be retroactive explanations rather than the cause of it, like it isn’t necessarily spirits or witches. It might be these other things but you apply this good story of folklore to them and it’s a way of applying folklore to what is a much more practical decision really.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah, that’s absolutely fair to say and in some cases, it’s really not clear. But there are cases where beliefs really do shape design. And a good example of this is found in Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries where there are actually purpose-built structures called spirit houses. And the idea here is that instead of trying to keep spirits out of your house, you invite them to stay in a different house altogether, something custom built for their needs.

Roman Mars:
Wow. So just houses devoted to spirits so they don’t occupy your own?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah, yeah.

Roman Mars:
That’s-

Kurt Kohlstedt:
They look good too. I’d lived there.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. Of course. Why not? And also in Southeast Asia, we’ve talked about this before, the dragon gates in skyscrapers.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Oh yeah, yeah. And those are really big and really obvious and pretty new too. Basically, they look like a giant wound up and punched a hole all the way through a skyscraper. And the theory behind them is that these holes, these gaps in the skyscrapers, allow dragons to fly back and forth between the water below and the mountains above.

Roman Mars:
And when you think about that in particular, skyscrapers are a pretty new phenomenon, so this is really taking the superstitions into account as a modern tradition.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah, very modern. And as a consequence, a lot of big-name modern architects have had to contend with these belief systems when they’re working in Hong Kong. And sort of famously, the Bank of China Tower by I.M. Pei got a lot of grief for ignoring Feng Shui experts and geomancers. And so, when Foster & Partners came along and started designing the HSBC Bank building nearby, they took Feng Shui advice really seriously. And so on their structure, among other things, there are these maintenance cranes on top. And if you look at them, they look like cannons pointed at the I.M. Pei building and they serve a practical purpose, but symbolically they’re meant to deflect the other building’s negative energies.

Roman Mars:
So they’re just permanently there poised to attack the other building?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah. And-

Roman Mars:
To keep away evil spirits?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah. And they really look like it too. You look at them and you think, you don’t think crane, you think, “That’s a cannon up there.”

Roman Mars:
Well, that’s a pretty ostentatious display or disapproval of somebody else’s disregard for the spirit world.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Oh yeah, very much so. And so some of them are about that, right? They’re about being ostentatious and obvious. But there are a lot of these things around us that we don’t necessarily even think about when we see them. So, for example, there’s a tradition called ‘topping out’, which has its roots in Scandinavia. Historically the idea was that you’d put a tree or a wreath on top of a new house or some other building and that would appease the tree spirits. So, it was like a thank you to the forest for providing the wood that was used to make the architecture.

Roman Mars:
Oh, I’ve seen these on skyscrapers but without all the accompanying lore. They’ll put a ceremonial tree at the top of a building and I didn’t know there was a real explanation for that.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah. And often there’s not. Often you just see it and you’re like, “Oh, that’s a neat thing that you do at the end like cutting a ribbon.” And that’s partly what’s fascinating to me about these things, is that there’s this back and forth between the function and the folklore. And sometimes you see one more obviously than the other and it can be hard at times to separate the two. So, gargoyles are a classic example, right? They have these supernatural associations, but they’re also part of a very pragmatic drainage system for buildings. And welcome mats too, we see those everywhere and we think those are very practical for wiping off your dirty boots. But this idea of having something with symbols on it, or words on it, that wards off or welcomes people at thresholds goes back thousands of years. So it can be a real challenge in some cases to tell what came first, the practical or the spiritual reasoning behind a particular design strategy.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. And so you’ve collected a bunch of these on the web, right, so people can read more about them?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Oh yeah. I’ve written about some of these and put some images on there too, so check them all out.

Roman Mars:
Cool. You can check that out at 99pi.org. Thanks, Kurt.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah, anytime.

——————————————

Roman Mars:
We will hear more mini-stories from the rest of the 99% invisible crew as the first episode of 2020. We’re going to take a little bit of time off, we hope you do too. Happy New Year. As of the end of 2019, 99% Invisible is Avery Trufelman, Katie Mingle, Kurt Kholstedt, Delaney Hall, Sharif Youssef, Emmett FitzGerald, Sean Real, Joe Rosenberg, Vivian Le, Sofia Klatzker, Chris Berube, and me, Roman Mars. We are a project of 91.7 KALW in San Francisco and produced on Radio Row in beautiful downtown Oakland, California.

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible is a proud member of Radiotopia from PRX, a fiercely independent collective of the most innovative shows in all of podcasting; support them all at radiotopia.fm. This is the part of the show where I tell you to go to the different social channels to interact with us. But the best way you can interact with us right here at the end of the year is go to radiotopia.fm and donate to support this show and all the shows on Radiotopia. Radiotopia.fm.

  1. T Nav

    The hsbc hq in HK was designed and constructed (1983) before the Bank of China building was constructed in 1985. It’s true that Foster and Partners consulted fung shui experts, but that was a matter of course because they were constructing in HK and it was going to be an important landmark.

    1. 99pi

      To clarify: the construction of the two buildings actually overlapped (one was completed in late 1985, the other started earlier that year). That said, it is true that the HSBC building was started before the Bank of China building, though the cranes mentioned were added to the HSBC indeed were (as far as I can tell from my research) designed to address the poor feng shui of the BoC building – I am not sure if they were added later or during the overlapping construction period. Source: https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/fodors/top/features/travel/destinations/asia/china/hongkong/fdrs_feat_74_10.html?n=Top%25252 -= Kurt

  2. Arianne

    I love this show. I love this episode, I appreciate all of you that work on it: Please don’t use the word spirit animal if you are not a member of an indigenous community. If you are I’m sorry for butting in but heads up.

    1. Chawne

      This is the same thing I came over here to comment on. Great show, lovely intent. However, it’s about time we abolished “spirit animal” from the general lexicon. There are other options for inferring the same intended meaning without intruding on or mocking marginalized people.

  3. Philip Meyer

    at the top of beechwood canyon, below the hollywood sign, there is also a high fence with a gate. above the gate is a camera surrounded by a ring of red lights. it is terrifying. it looks straight of some orwellian police state. the gate has a proximity sensor and makes a very aggressive sounding tone (not a beep but a sustained tone) as you approach it

  4. PSUAth

    About the Hollywood Sign Access. I think I’m with the residents on this. At least it sounds like that while the sign is public, there isn’t (good) public infrastructure to hike to it. As part of that public going through the neighborhood isn’t treating the neighborhood nice nor does they city police/clean/maintain the neighborhood. I’d do my best to keep my property nice.

  5. BM

    I live in Centretown and have a correction to make to the Jack Purcell story. They aren’t lamp posts at all, they’re just sculptures. After some research I found a rendering that shows the light coming through the holes that would’ve held the string, which would be post-redesign but pre-implementation. I think this was an attempt to make the ‘trees’ a little more exciting, but wasn’t feasible since they were never designed to be lights. Now we have brutalist quidditch rings and a story.

  6. Gavan

    Hey I did the hike! Didn’t even know there’s instructions. I came on a bus to the eara near (not even the park, but the other side!) by and just started walking not knowing it’ll be such a winding complex walk throgh all these houses. Ended up walking about an hour on a very hot day and feeling sorry for the residents having tons of people like me come by.

  7. Joan

    Two comments about the rampaging raccoons: First, are there reasons TNR (trap, neuter & release) wouldn’t work to control the population? That would take away the Buddhists having to kill a living creature issue. Second & on a happier note: did you notice that the theme song for “Araiguma Rascal” is the first tune in the classic arcade game Frogger? :D

  8. Jim

    I live in Boston and use mass transit to get everywhere. I don’t even own an automobile. I used Apple Maps and typed in The Hollywood Sign for directions using transit. Amtrak to San Bernardino, Metrolink SB line to Union Station, then choice of AV Line or Red Line to two different bus lines that get you within 25-35 minute walk to the sign. The walk is likely through the neighborhood mentioned in the story. I used to date a woman from LA and would go out ther for Christmas. The first time I was told the only way to get to the family house in an east of LA suburb near Corona was by airport limo/van. Very expensive and took forever. After that I figured out a way to get within a 20 minute drive of the house using bus and Metrolink. Easy!

  9. raya

    Just listening to the witch window story and you solved the blue paint in chefchawan Morocco. Our guide did say the paint was a mosquito repellent:)

  10. Greg

    The most obvious superstitious influence on architecture that I see is the omission of the 13th floor. My ER doesn’t have a room 13.

  11. Adam

    So interestingly in the United States the European Starling and the House Sparrow are exotic invasives because of a persons love of literature namely Shakespeare.

    Pikachu is based of the Northern pika (Ochotona hyperborea) though I kinda think it looks more like the American pika (Ochotona prince’s)

  12. Lynn

    Thanks for the mini-stories, I love them (and you guys)! The raccoon story reminded me of another one by Radiolab (Stranger in Paradise), about how raccoons came to Guadeloupe.

    Also when I was a kid in Hawaii in the 60s, there was a popular song about raccoons. This cartoon is how I remember it – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FeMaFJsvm9w. I did a little searching and discovered this song is about the native Japanese raccoon dog, not the interloper – Shojoji no tanuki bayashi (Raccoon Dogs Dancing at Shojoji Temple.

  13. I had Mickey Mouse Club LP album from the 1950s, when I was a kid, with a Japanese song and an English verse translation. I thought of digging it out to record that to share with you, but I found a close version online:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QxDVcI4HHRk

    The English verse on the album I have is
    Sho, sho, sho jo ji; Sho jo ji is a raccoon
    He is always hungry, so he sings of koi koi koi

    We used to sing along, as closely as we could hear it. My sister sang it for a Japanese friend at college, and he said we had most of it right.

    According to the intro on the 45 in the video, the song went with a kids’ circle dance.
    So there was already some interest in raccoons, among Japanese children, in or before the mid-1950s.

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