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Adding color to a black and white history

July 31, 2012

In the early 1930s, as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), an eight-sided, seven story circular ramp was constructed to replace the rickety staircases workers used to get from Hamilton Hill to the GE Plant in Schenectady, New York. The ramp allows workers a safe short cut for walking to work. And became a favorite of boys with bicycles.

The ramp was closed in January 1958 and was gone before the end of the year. A brief search of the entire Internet yielded exactly zero pictures of the structure, known as the Klondike (or Klondyke, depending on the source) Ramp. I only know about it because my dad told me, and because of a Schenectady history book my grandmother bought me (gulp) thirty-five years ago.

I can only imagine what it was like to take your bike across the flat approach bridge to the top, then dare myself to go faster, top to bottom. There’s an Interstate highway where the ramp used to be.

Most of my imaginings from before 1973 or so are in black and white. The pictures of that time frame almost all lack color. I don’t know what that ramp really looked like. When I think of the catch from Willie Mays in the 1954 World Series, I don’t know what color the outfield wall is. It’s kind of grayish, as displayed in the picture below.

To me, it’s gray. I reality, I think it was green, as displayed in this beautiful colorized version of the famous picture.

If you’re writing history, be it historical fiction or memoir, part of your challenge is to add color to a black and white world. I know what the ramp looked like, what the Polo Grounds looked like, but I don’t have the full experiences. I don’t know the colors.

In some ways, that’s better. It allows me to let you, the writer, be my eyes. To help me to understand what the enormous green expanse Mays patrolled looked like. Or to help me feel what it was like to scream down that ramp, afraid of crashing into the wall, and equally afraid of wimping out.

The challenge is to add color and make me feel like I was there, even if I wasn’t.


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