Three Birthdays

The story may be apocryphal, but Ken Burns was supposed to have said that, to understand this country, one must understand three things: the Civil War, baseball and jazz. While I agree, I might suggest another trio of important keys to understanding the American character.

Three exemplary American institutions had recent birthdays. Two turned 75, the third turned 68. Together, they’ve shaped and reflected our nation’s identity.

The first is the Golden Gate Bridge. It is, as my friend Chris Forsyth recently reminded me, very American to look at the distance between two seemingly unlinkable points, then design and build a bridge between them. The bridge was, at the time it was first suggested, thought impossible to build. The Golden Gate Straight is long and naturally very deep. Contemporary bridge building techniques were unequal to it. The design was, therefore, necessarily revolutionary. It is also aesthetically revolutionary. And it has stood the test of time. It remains breathtaking. It is one of the great human constructions of all time, and is rightly an icon, not just of San Francisco, its home, but of the entire country.

The second institution celebrating its 75th birthday is the Sigmund Stern Grove concert series. For 75 years, the grove has hosted a series of extraordinary open-air concerts during the summer months. Always open to the public. Always free. The grove was purchased by a wealthy San Francisco family (They were relatives of Levi Strauss, of Levi’s jeans.) and given to the city to be held in trust and developed with the express purpose of providing a venue for the free entertainment of the city’s people in an open, natural environment. Through the Stern Grove concerts, many people have had their only opportunities to see symphonic music, grand opera, traditional American and world music. The grove is an example of those times in which business elites thought and gave to make their communities better, stronger and more hospitable to their cities’ working class.

The third institution might, more than any over event in the history of this country, be responsible for America’s democratization. Before the Second World War, about 10 percent of Americans, typically the monied elite, went to college. That changed when, 68 years ago, president Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the GI Bill, giving millions the access, for the first time, to higher education, and many many more people the expectation that higher education was accessible and affordable. Much of our political, social and economic progress as a nation is directly due to this one policy initiative.

Happy birthday to these three great American institutions. Time to make some more films, Ken.

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