The Edith Keeler House – My Model Railroad has a MissionPart I – The Story behind the Building
Recently I wrote a story about Betty’s Diner, based on the Bar Mills kit, “Sweaty Betty’s.” The article not only told the story of how and why I built it, I also added a fictitious back-story to justify its location near an HO brewery I am currently building. At the end of that story I revealed my next project would combine a skid row mission with a Catholic Worker hospitality house (and Star Trek).
My first goal was to find a suitable kit to fit my vision for this project, I settled on the Bar Mills kit, “The Gravely Building. ” This kit had some neat features that would fit quite nicely into a skid row mission. It would work very well for a building that has both a soup kitchen on the first floor, and also space to house people, hence the Catholic Worker connection.
First let’s talk about skid row and the missions that served them. Skid row refers to a rundown dilapidated part of town where most of those who lived are down and out. Today that part of town is mostly referred to as a slum. Back during the Great Depression, many areas of large cities slipped into becoming skid rows because of the number of people out of work. Missions sprang up in these areas to help whenever possible. The Salvation Army had a large presence in skid row neighborhoods. Skid row missions could be easily identified by large crosses or “Jesus Saves” signs, many in neon. The missions would serve a hot meal and coffee; some would offer beds. Typically a mission would have a long line of people waiting outside for food and drink.
Back during the early years of the Great Depression, Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin established Catholic Worker Houses of Hospitality in cities across the US. Their mission was to care for the poor by feeding them and housing them. They were a Catholic alternative to the Salvation Army. Dorothy was a very attractive woman and a well known radical writer. She was also a dyed-in-the-wool pacifist. During WWII she wrote a considerable number of articles against war. She also lived in New York at a Hospitality House on the east side.
Enter the Star Trek episode “City on the Edge of Forever,” considered by most Trekkies as the best episode of the original series. Also enter, Edith Keeler a pivotal character in that episode, played by a young Joan Collins. The episode also includes a deranged Dr. McCoy, time travel, and Kirk falling in love with (you guessed it) Edith Keeler. Now where does Dorothy Day fit into all of this? While the Edith Keeler character runs a mission on New York City’s east side during the Great Depression, she is young, beautiful, very smart, and she is a dyed-in–the wool pacifist. (The sci-fi element of the story revolves around her pacifism changing the course of WWII for the worse, if she survives a simple traffic accident.) Coincidence maybe, but how many women ran missions in New York City during the great Depression that was also outspoken pacifists. Also, at the time the episode was written, Dorothy was still in the news, for she was very active in the Civil Rights and Peace movements of the 1960’s.
Was Edith Keeler based on the real Dorothy Day? Maybe. There are more than some passing similarities but no smoking peace pipe. But there is enough here to call my Skid Row mission, the “Edith Keeler House.”The Catholic Worker facilities were always named for people, mostly saints, with the word house placed after their name; hence “Edith Keeler House.”
Other buildings you would see on skid row are pool halls, flop houses or very cheap hotels, walkup tenement buildings (no elevator), small shops, and, after prohibition, bars. The sidewalks were filled with people out of work or bums and very few automobiles. Kids would play in open fire hydrants on hot summer days, and there was plenty of garbage around. Downtown Deco makes a series of really nice skid row buildings, including many I mention above. Also there are many DPM, Bar Mills, and City Classics buildings that would fit nicely into a skid row scene in both HO and O scale.
In part two we will look at the model itself and talk about model railroading as a form of art.
—Ray Del Papa