Tag Archives: chicago

Robert Fisher on Community Organizing in America — 1886 through 1946

I read Robert Fisher’s Let the People Decide years ago now, and after all I’ve read in the meantime appreciated it more and more this time around. I love the long view of historical struggle, the historical framework it is set into. The importance of contextualising the massive influence of Alinsky — taking him in the round and not as a kind of straw man — while developing our understanding of how things need to grow and change, and where they have done so. It’s an interesting timeline, there is so so much in here I didn’t know, had not even heard of. I suppose my own research has thrown up other vibrant traditions of grassroots community-based organizing through the 1930s and the war years, primarily in the African American Community that I missed a bit, but this begins to open up the deep histories of struggle we can look to in the US. I particularly love the drawing out of lessons for contemporary struggle…

I’ve based my posts around his periodisations, so we start in the 1880s up through the Great Depression

Social Welfare Neighborhood Organizing, 1886-1929

This connects to the Social Settlement movement in the UK — 1884 saw the founding of Toynbee House in East London by two students at Oxford (and still standing as a community space and centre today, though it has changed with the times). It promoted the need for those who wished to work with a community to actually live — usually embracing some level of poverty — within it. Still a problematic and often patronising idea, but a step up from mandating improvements from comfort in stately surroundings miles away. It  inspiring similar settlements across the UK and in the US. Most famous is probably Hull House, founded by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr. I’ve been meaning to read more about Hull House but not worked myself up to it, precisely because this is my general view of those participating in this movement:

Settlement workers got involved in neighborhood organizations out of a mixed bag of sympathy, fear, guilt, social concern, and a desire to give purpose to their own lives. (8)

And also for this reason:

They sought harmony within an unjust economic framework — liberal reformers not ready to challenge the economic roots of poverty (10)

They still, for the most part, blamed the poor for their own poverty and worked around programmes of skills trainings, moral uplift, birth control in the way that leaves you feeling disgusted because it’s more about preventing mucky poor people from reproducing, rather than supporting capable women to take control of their lives and choices.

Seeing only deficits, such models were often insensitive to existing networks — yet Fisher notes how poor communities continued to be organized outside of these top-down elitist structures.  Churches, synagogues, mutual benefit associations, and ethnic, labor and political organizations continued to thrive alongside informal networks of support. (13)

Out of and in response to the Settlement Movement, which I knew of, came the Community Center Movement, which I did not.  It was driven by people who wanted something more effective and widespread and with more bottom-up from local communities. It reached its peak between 1907-1915, yet still struggled with top-down programming, and it remained primarily managed by the elite. As WWI started, many such community centre’s actually began to drive patriotism and work with the government to track ‘subversives’ among ethnic and radical populations, effectively bringing the whole thing to a halt. (21)

I very much loved the deep look at the Cincinnati Social Unit Plan — a unique community-based child welfare program created by Wilbur and Elsie Phillips under a Socialist mayor (!). It attempted to put real power in the hands of mothers for deciding priorities and support needs, and showed real success in improving health and making concrete changes in people’s lives. However, the fall of the mayor meant the programme was defunded and fell apart.

This happened despite the Phillips’ ongoing attempt to distance themselves from the mayor’s socialism in claiming that that their work was not political. Fisher also notes despite the successes of the programme, they still failed to fully escape elitism, which ensured they were not able to sink deep enough roots in the community they were working in, preventing the community from feeling a full sense of ownership of the programme that could have led to a fight to preserve it under a new mayor.

Lesson, this shit is political and you will need people’s support to keep it going through hard times.

Radical Neighborhood Organizing 1929-1946

Starts with Langston Hughes’ poem to a landlord — few better places to start:

Landlord, landlord,
My roof has sprung a leak.
Don’t you ‘member I told you about it
Way last week?

Landlord, landlord,
These steps is broken down.
When you come up yourself
It’s a wonder you don’t fall down.

Ten Bucks you say I owe you?
Ten Bucks you say is due?
Well, that’s Ten Bucks more’n I’l pay you
Till you fix this house up new.

What? You gonna get eviction orders?
You gonna cut off my heat?
You gonna take my furniture and
Throw it in the street?

Um-huh! You talking high and mighty.
Talk on-till you get through.
You ain’t gonna be able to say a word
If I land my fist on you.

Police! Police!
Come and get this man!
He’s trying to ruin the government
And overturn the land!

Copper’s whistle!
Patrol bell!
Arrest.
Precinct Station.
Iron cell.
Headlines in press:
MAN THREATENS LANDLORD
TENANT HELD NO BAIL
JUDGE GIVES NEGRO 90 DAYS IN COUNTY JAIL!

Some things never change. But the 1930s were some time to be alive. Fisher writes:

Neighborhood organizing in the 1930s was characterized not only by its radicalism but by this dual concern of building an insurgent movement at both the national and local levels. (38)

I think perhaps we’re approaching this level again. There is a long, very interesting discussion of the radical work of the Communist Party at this time — a small proportion of community organizing but a very visible one, and quite influential in tactics and strategy. But this difference is key between the Party’s organizing of the period and what would come to be known as community organizing:

Most activists now see the primary goal of neighborhood organizing as awakening people to a sense of their own power. the Communists saw neighborhood work as a means of recruiting people into a national organization. (39)

But still, the Unemployed Councils? They would divide up a city or rural area into sections and then send organizers there to get to it, build a council that began to organize and implement direct actions, stop evictions, face down bailiffs, force up relief centres. They did some amazing things. But always controlled by the Comintern. Underground for a long time, the party came out in the open in late 1920s to organize the unemployed and racial minorities until the 1935 switch to popular front. But until then they did some brilliant things. In 1930, they decided on a:

four-pronged “bread and  butter” strategy focused on relief, housing, race, and “translocal” issues…issues outside the community which would concern neighborhood residents. (43)

Key issues basic to life itself, but tied into wider struggle through the ‘translocal’ aspect — in Harlem, for example, support for the Scottsboro boys was just one of these, along with anti-lynching legislation, and opposition to Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia. They had tremendous successes in the early days across the country. Fisher notes that in Detroit, the unemployed councils succeeded in stopping practically all evictions through direct action.

I also love the party’s insistence on complete equality between whites and people of colour in these years, with the party line being:

…the struggle of white workers would never succeed unless workers of all races were included as equal participants (45)

In some ways the shift to the Popular Front strategy and new focus on anti-fascist struggle and union organising was important, but it left hanging all of the work already started. Above all, eradicating racism was left to the side, and members were ordered to abandon work on the councils by 1939. But while it lasted, Fisher argues the CPUSA was successful because it:

emphasized organizational discipline, defined local issues in a national and international context, linked community struggles with those in the workplace, developed alliances between black and white workers, and offered a thorough political analysis of the problems community people faced. Such accomplishments by radicals had rarely been seen before in this country. (49)

Errors? Lots:

political opportunism, its interest in the needs of the Soviet Union over those of American workers, and its autocratic organizational structure, which quashed the type of criticism necessary to prevent ideological and tactical errors… abandonment of African Americans… (49)

There was, however, a developing understanding of organizing and movement. Fisher writes:

There is a complementary relationship between social movement and community organizing. Local organizing oriented to social change can exist without a movement, but it will not thrive for very long. When a movement develops, however, community organizations often ride the wave of mass support. (52)

Out of this ferment Saul Alinsky would emerge, already organising with the CIO through these radical 1930s, already grappling with these connections (more in Alinsky’s own words can be found here). Fisher emphasises the continuities in struggle — Alinsky would apply his work with the CIO to the Back of the Yards neighborhood in a way that Fisher describes as ‘a kind of “trade union in the social factory”‘. While he would later describe himself as an “urban populist”, Alinsky started out in his student days involved in the CP ‘in typical Popular Front terms, as a “professional antifascist.”‘ (56)

As I say, I really like how this contextualises Alinsky’s insights into, and codification of, community organizing. This particularly draws out how the weaknesses of the communist party’s work in its accountability to Moscow rather than to local people almost certainly influenced Alinsky’s move towards a ‘non-ideological’ standpoint which is now where much critique of his methodologies is pointed.

Fisher describes what he believes to be the five essential elements to ‘Alinskyism’, recognizing of course that this simplifies it all a bit, always dangerous:

  1. The professional organizer is the catalyst for social change. They need to be well-trained, creative, help to make democracy happen.
  2. The task is to build a democratic community-based organization. Democracy as self-determination, people make the decisions about the things that effect them. The organizer is catalyst for this, not the leader.
  3. The goal is to win power. ‘Power is the sine qua non of Alinsky organizing. … Neighborhood organizations are seen as the interest groups of the powerless and unorganized.’ (53) This is ultimately based on self-interest.
  4. Any tactics necessary should be used. I like Fisher’s list: ‘Negotiation, arbitration, protests and demonstrations; boycotts, strikes, and mass meetings; picketing, raising hell, being diplomatic, and being willing to use anything that might work… (54)
  5. A people’s organization must be pragmatic and nonideological. Alinsky believed ideological organizations were undermined because ‘their organizers came with preconceived ideals, goals and strategies; they did not let neighborhood people make decisions… Only the progressive ideology that people developed themselves would last.’ (55)

Fisher continues:

Alinsky grounded his pragmatism in the promise of pluralism. He believed that the economic and political system could work for working-class people if they could reach the bargaining-tables of power. (55)

You know that idea’s come in for a lot of critique.

His Back of the Yards campaigning was pretty impressive, and out of it developed some lessons I recognize well: do your homework before the community meeting (you’ll have already talked to everyone to know where they stand, you don’t want no surprises), build the organization by winning victories, use service delivery if you need it but the primary goal is social change.

Of course you also have the Alinsky signature, conflict:

which raised strategy and tactics to paramount importance in community organizing, above and beyond questions of ideology, goals, and even democratic structure. (61)

And beautiful as the Back of the Yards struggle was, it became racist and reactionary, and Alinsky himself came to call this community a hell hole of hate as they fought to keep African Americans out. This perhaps highlights the weaknesses of an organization that puts process over goals, and only discusses tactical questions. Such a strategy only makes sense if the only problem is a lack of power, rather than deeper issues around capitalism itself and how that articulates with race, class, gender and etc. Fisher describes the older Alinsky as essentially cool with liberal capitalism, someone who loved FDR, believed in this ‘interest-group model of democracy’ and did not question capitalism itself. (64) Arguably the lesson here, is that we do need to grapple with ideological understandings, while also some practical focus on building movement and winning things. We can’t forget how important — and how possible — winning things actually is. The struggle is how to tie that into a programme for truly radical transformative social change that can only take place over the long-term.

[Fisher, Robert (1994) Let the People Decide: Neighborhood Organizing in America. New York: Maxwell Macmillan International.]

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Two Fighters, Same Fight: June Jordan and Jimmy Santiago Baca

A good kind of synergy came from reading June Jordan and Jimmy Santiago Baca so close together — especially in these two poems describing the leaders of different struggles over justice and land. One in Chicago, one in Albuquerque. I love how this form captures so perfectly the different feel, the different place. At the same time they feel almost like two sides of my own life, L.A. tenant unions and my LA/ Tucson neighborhoods and every childhood Thanksgiving up in Albuquerque with my grandparents…

188044For Beautiful Mary Brown, Chicago Rent Strike Leader

— From Some Changes (June Jordan, 1971)

All of them are six
who wait inside that other room
where no man walks but many
talk about the many wars

Your baby holds your laboring arms
that bloat from pulling
up and down the stairs to tell
to call the neighbors: We can fight.

She listens to you and she sees
you crying on your knees or else
the dust drifts from your tongue and almost
she can feel her father standing tall.

Came to Chicago like flies to fish.
Found no heroes on the corner.
Butter the bread and cover the couch.
Save on money.

Don’t
tell me how you wash hope hurt and lose
don’t tell me how you
sit still at the windowsill:

you will be god to bless you
Mary Brown. (p 48-49)

1143647From Meditations on the South Valley
(Baca – 1985)

XIV

El Pablo was a bad dude.
Presidente of the River Rats
(700 strong), from ’67 to ’73.
Hands so fast
he could catch two flies buzzing
in air, and still light his cigarette.
From a flat foot standing position
he jumped to kick the top of a door jamb
twice with each foot.
Pants and shirt ceased and cuffed,
sharp pointy shoes polished to black glass,
El Pachucón was cool to the bone, brutha.
His initials were etched
on Junior High School desks,
Castañeda’s Meat Market walls,
downtown railway bridge,
on the red bricks of Civic Auditorium,
Uptown & Downtown,
El Pachucón left his mark.
Back to the wall, legs crossed, hands pocketed,
combing his greased-back ducktail
when a jaine walked by. Cool to the huesos.
Now he’s a janitor at Pajarito
Elementary School —
still hangs out
by the cafeteria, cool to the bone,
el vato
still wears his sunglasses,
still proud,
he leads a new gang of neighborhood parents
to the Los Padilla Community Center
to fight against polluted ground water,
against Developers who want to urbanize
his rural running grounds
Standing in the back of the crowd
last Friday, I saw Pablo stand up
and yell at the Civic Leaders from City Hall

“Listen cuates, you pick your weapons
We’ll fight you on any ground you pick.” (72)

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SCLC’s 1966 Plan for Organizing Chicago

Eyes on the PrizeIt gave me chills to find the SCLC’s plan for organizing Chicago in Eyes on the Prize. Chills to read it, think about just how much resonated with the organizing work we were doing in LA at SAJE. I look back and honestly have no idea how much was influenced by the kind of thinking embodied in this document by the SCLC, passed down through generations of movement people to us, and how much we come up with on our own because it’s only common sense once you have some experience fighting and share similar outlook and goals. I think we probably inherited more than we ever knew consciously, soaking up wisdom and workshops and for myself at least, not paying enough attention to  this incredible history. Our luck at being woven into this long history of struggle and sacrifice and incredible human beings.

The document is entitled ‘A proposal by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference for the Development of a Nonviolent Action Movement for the Greater Chicago Area’ It was put forward on 5th January, 1966, and was to be conducted together with Chicago’s Coordinating Council of Community Organizations (CCCO). You can read the full text online here.

It opens with their analysis of the city of Chicago, and this political and economic moment of 1966:

Chicago is a city of more than a million Negroes. For almost a century now it has been the northern landing place for southern migrants journeying up from the Mississippi Delta. It was the Promised Land for thousand who sought to escape the cruelties of Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee; yet, now in the year 1966, the cycle has almost reversed. Factories moving South, employment and opportunities on the increase, and recent civil rights legislation are rapidly disintegrating the cruelties of segregation. The South is now a land of opportunity, while those who generations ago sang, “Going to Chicago, sorry but I can’t take you,” now sink into the depths of despair. (291)

Their articulation of their own strategy and philosophy, rooting their projected plan of action in their philosophy and what they believe is the strength that has previously brought them to victory:

THE SCLC PHILOSOPHY OF SOCIAL CHANGE

In our work in the South two principles have emerged. One, the crystallization of issues, and two, the concentration of action.

In Birmingham we confronted the citadel of southern segregation. In 1963 not one aspect of Birmingham community life was desegregated. In approaching this complex segregated society, the issue was simplified deliberately to: Segregation. Early newspaper critiques challenged the simplification and offered a thousand rationalizations as to why such complex problems could not be dealt with so simply and suggested a hundred more “moderate, responsible” methods of dealing with our grievances. Yet it was the simplification of the issue to the point where every citizen of good will, black and white, north and south, could respond and identify that ultimately made Birmingham the watershed movement in the history of the civil rights struggle.

The second point was the concentration of action, and we chose lunch counters, a target which seemed to most social analysts the least significant but one to which most people could rally. It was a target wherein one might achieve some measure of change yet which sufficiently involved the lines of economic and social power to a point beyond itself – to the larger problem. (293-294)

Back to the concrete nature of what they face in Chicago (and what we faced in LA, and what communities of the poor and people of colour face across the country…interesting that they felt they could separate out the issues in the South.

THE PROBLEM IN CHICAGO

The Chicago problem is simply a matter of economic exploitation. Every condition exists simply because someone profits by its existence. This economic exploitation is crystallized in the SLUM.

Look at this analysis of slum housing in 1966, ain’t nothing changed at all.

A slum is any area which is exploited by the community at large or an area where free trade and exchange of culture and resources is not allowed to exist. In a slum, people do not receive comparable care and services for the amount of rent paid on a dwelling. They are forced to purchase property at inflated real estate value. They pay taxes, but their children do not receive an equitable share of those taxes in educational, recreational and civic services. They may leave the community and acquire professional training, skills or crafts, but seldom are they able to find employment opportunities commensurate with these skills. And in rare occasions when they do, opportunities for advancement and promotion are restricted. The means that in proportion to the labor, money and intellect which the slum pours into the community at large, only a small portion is received in return benefits. [James] Bevel and our Chicago stall have come to see this as a system of internal colonialism, not unlike the exploitation of the Congo by Belgium. (294)

But I wish I had read this before, this is such a smart, comprehensive way of analysing the problem from some of the best minds in the country — why did we go reinventing this wheel? It never occurred to me when we were working on the issue of slum housing for so many years that it would be well worth my while to do more research on earlier battles to end it. I did a little, but not enough to find this. Not that I had time for research, and perhaps still might never have found this without knowing where to look. It’s why continuity in movement and halfway houses are so important I think… and better ways of making accessible information:

As we define and interpret the dynamics of the slum, we see the total pattern of economic exploitation under which Negroes suffer in Chicago and in other northern cities.

1. Education: … slum education is designed to perpetuate the inferior status of slum children and prepare them only for menial jobs in much the same way that the South African apartheid education philosophy does for the African.

2. Building Trade Unions: Building trade unions bar Negroes from many employment opportunities which could easily be learned by persons with limited academic training.

3. Real Estate: Real Estate Boards restrict the supply of housing available to Negroes to the result that Negro families pay an average $20 per month more in rent and receive fewer services that persons in other neighborhoods.

4. Banks and Mortgage Companies: Banks and mortgage companies charge higher interest rates and in many instances even refuse to finance real estate in slum communities and transitional communities, making the area easy prey for loan sharks.

5. Slum Landlords: Slum landlords find a most lucrative return on a minimum investment due to inefficient enforcement of city building codes as well as inadequate building codes, overcrowding of living space, and a tax structure on slum property which means the more you let the building run down, the less you pay in taxes.

6. The Welfare System: The welfare system contributes to the breakdown of family life by making it more difficult to obtain money if the father is in the household and subjects families to a dehumanized existence at the hand of impersonal self-perpetuating bureaucracy.

7. Federal Housing Agencies: Federal housing agencies will not insure loans for purchasing real estate in Negro communities and make little money available for financing any low-cost housing or renovation of present housing.

8. The Courts: The courts are organized as a tool of the economic structure and political machine. Judges are political appointees and subject to political influence.

9. The Police: The police are little more than “enforcers” of the present system of exploitation and often demonstrate particular contempt for poor Negroes, so that they are deprived of any sense of human dignity and the status of citizenship in order that they may be controlled and “kept in line.”

10. The Political System: The established political system deprives Negroes of political power and, through patronage and pressure, robs the community of its democratic voice in the name of a Democratic Machine.

11. The City Administration: The city administration refuses to render adequate services to the Negro community. Street cleaning, garbage collection and police protection are offered menially, if at all.

12. The Federal Government: The federal government has yet to initiate a creative attempt to deal with the problems of megalopolitan life and the results of the past three centuries of slavery and segregation on Negroes. (295-96)

Tackling all this was no small task, even in contemplation. They knew they were confronting something a bit different, and that required a change in strategy:

In the South concentration on one issue proved feasible because of a general pattern of state and local resistance. However, in Chicago we are faced with the probability of a ready accommodation to many of the issues in some token manner, merely to curtail the massing for forces and public opinion around those issues. Therefore, we must be prepared to concentrate all of our forces around any and all issues. (296-97)

Mobilization is always key seems like, another main section:

MOBILIZATION OF FORCES

Though we always fought hard that more was going on. You can do a lot just moving people to one meeting and then another, but we never thought that changed enough either in terms of consciousness or lasting change.

The SCLC saw their main targets as members of churches, students, and the unemployed. Like we did at SAJE, they thought about how to create small groups that could themselves deal with smaller issues but come together in a larger force, and they came up with the same idea decades before we did — someone there agreed with us that mobilization wasn’t enough:

In two or three selected neighborhoods, household units must be organized into some type of union to end slums (or householders union, tenant union, or community union). These neighborhoods would be organized on a door-to-door basis to bargain collectively with landlords and the city in an effort to change the conditions which create slums. It would provide protection against eviction and exploitation and help resolve many immediate problems, but its main function would be to band together to demand that the conditions which create slums be ended. This would be a tremendous power in dealing with both political and economic factors which affect life in the slums.

Some explorations are under way in Longdale, East Garfield Park, Kenwood and Englewood. (298)

We too thought in terms of stages, always moving from one to the next, escalating, getting bigger, being strategic about that. That, I am sure, was a direct result of the ways that this kind of strategic thinking continued through various groups in the movement, even if some of the details that would have been so useful to us were lost:

DEVELOPMENTAL APPROACH TO ACTION

During the first phase of the movement organization and education are the primary purposes. This will be done largely through mass meetings, neighborhood rallies and work shops and should continue through the month of February. Demonstrations must also be thought of as educational and organizational tools, and there may be some occasions which call for demonstrations. When this is the case, it must be clear that the purpose of the demonstration is to dramatize and so define this incident as one link in the chain of economic exploitation which occurs in slum life.

Phase 2: By the first of March, community response and live issues should have evolved to the point where some consensus has been reached around specific targets. At this point we should be able to develop the detailed day-by-day strategy which would seek to demonstrate the total chain which enslaves us. Demonstrations should be scheduled at points which should reveal the agents of exploitation and paint a portrait of the evils which beset us in such a manner that it is clear the world over what makes up a slum and what it is that destroys the people who are forced to live in a slum.

Phase 3: By the first of May we should be ready to launch the phases of massive action, but just as no one knew on January 2, 1965, that there would be a march from Selma to Montgomery by March of that year, so now we are in no position to know what form massive action might take in Chicago. However, as we begin to dramatize the situation, we will be led into forms of demonstration which will create the kind of coalition of conscience which is necessary to produce change in this country. (298-99)

And of course, every campaign needs its goals and objectives, and they looked to change both individual consciousness as well as policy and external structures.

OBJECTIVES

Our objectives in this movement are federal, state and local. On the federal level we would hope to get the kind of comprehensive legislation which would meet the problems of slum life across this nation. At the state level, we should expect the kinds of tax reforms, updating of building codes, open occupancy legislation and enforcement of existing statutes for the protection of our citizens. On the local level we would hope to create the kind of awareness in people that would make it impossible for them to [be] enslaved or abused and create for them the kind of democratic structures which will enable them to continually deal with the problems of slum life. Among these would be active community organizations, a coordinated and powerful civil rights movement, religious institutions which are prepared to minister to persons in urban society as well as to the structures of that society. We would also hope that from this would emerge several pilot projects and institutions which might be of some permanent significance. (299)

Sadly, that list of objectives that Martin Luther King nailed to the door of city hall like Luther himself didn’t quite seem to live up to all of that. But I don’t know enough to quibble with the actually policy changes proposed, all I can say is I think established organizations often don’t ask for enough, putting a small win above getting anything close to what people really need in a campaign big enough to inspire people. But that’s an aside.

Following this document comes an interview with Linda Bryant Hall, member of CORE in 1966 and the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations – I love that they contrasted these two things. It raises all the key issues about the importance of local organisation and power, and how that connects to national organisations who have their own agendas. She talks about King’s presence in Chicago, how happy everyone was that he was coming — because how could you not be? But that despite their own organising proposal, he hadn’t thought enough about the differences, and seems like as well, he hadn’t expected a full working partnership.

After he came here, it was quite obvious–at least to me–that this was a more diversified community and the tactics were going to have to be a little different here. What happened is that when he came in, I think what he tried to do was to try and take that kind of style he had operated with in the South and just plant it down here in Chicago, as if it worked there it would work here, too. Not taking into consideration the difference that would be here. (311)

In Chicago they had already brought community organizations together to work under in a group called the triple CO, an umbrella group. In the words of Bryant:

We needed him to lend us his strength, to lend us his name. And we wanted him to come and join our movement–not come in and lead it, because we already had leaders. So when he came in to try and discount what was already here, I think, he offended quite a few people. (312)

She goes on to talk about the march to Cicero (one of those all-white no-go-or-you-will-be-hurt-real-bad neighbourhoods for people of colour, I am finding every single city had a number of those) and the drama and confusion around that, how the CCCO decided to go through with it but they hadn’t done the leafletting, knocking on doors, all the things to get people to the march. There is so much work involved in pulling off a good march most of the time, but people came anyway, they just put down what they were doing and joined up.

This march was community people. These people had not attended any workshops on nonviolence; they had not listened to any lectures on love and loving your fellow man at all; they were just people who were angry about what was happening and wanted to do something. (315)

I dream of marches like that.

Chicago…SCLC’s campaign didn’t meet it’s own goals. It was a bit of a shock to their system. I feel like this city was a turning point, a Northern city but one where residential segregation was deeply entrenched and very violently defended (see Arnold Hirsch’s work, or Cayton and Drake’s Black Metropolis–a book I absolutely love and am in some awe of intellectually, yet still haven’t quite managed to blog in all its massiveness). It definitely seemed at the time to highlight differences between north and south, rural and urban, fall into that gap between Martin and Malcolm. With calm hindsight, I don’t feel those as opposing things so much and even at the time I know they weren’t experienced as complete binaries by folks in the movement the way press portrayed them. But now I’m writing about things I might not know enough about. In terms of the nitty gritty on analysis and strategy though, as well as the insight into what role a national organisation should play when there is plenty of local organisation, this little section was awesome.

For more on organizing…

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‘The Critical Mass of Urbanism’ – Bertrand Goldberg

There was no visit to Bertrand Goldberg’s Marina City for me this Christmas… Chicago was amazing in terms of spending time with family and getting acquainted with my baby nephew Eli for the first time. He is pretty awesome. Plans to get on a train and into the city went nowhere though, between holidays and stomach flu — so I read and read some more.

Rare time with family more than made up for missing the splendid corn cobs. Still, I have a bit more to say about Bertrand Goldberg, looking at his own words and reflections on what his architecture meant and hoped to achieve. There were two provocative essays of his in Dans la Ville, and I rather thought I would do a post on each.

In ‘The Critical Mass of Urbanism’, a speech first given before the Union Internationale des Architects in April of 1983, Goldberg reflects on Marina City, which he began building in 1959 for Chicago’s Janitorial union as an affordable housing complex:

Twenty-five years ago I designed Marina City in Chicago. At 588 feet (65 stories),these apartment towers were the highest concrete buildings in the world and also the highest apartment buildings. At $10 per square foot, they were the most economical in the United States. They were the first American mixed-use urban complex to include housing and possibly the first in the western world since the 14th century. They were a technological advance that was designed for a world which believed its urban problems could be solved with technology and facts.

Bertrand Goldberg - Marina City
A view of the office building supported above its base structure. The base floor of the office building contains a recreational bowling its base structure. The base floor of the office building contains a recreational bowling alley and commercial retail space. The roof of the base is a recreational terrace for the office employees. The ten floors of office space are supported on a transfer system created by the columns.

It is interesting that he zeroes in here on the fundamental shift in power at different scales and the amount of power accruing to city governments in the U.S., so discussed in urban planning and geography. By the 1980s this was a hot topic, though I don’t think it was quite the same when Marina City was built:

The struggle between fact and faith in architecture has been most important in the world cities of the 20th century. Major cities have become city states, much as they were in the 14th century before the development of nation-states. Cities throughout the world again have assumed every power of government except the right to coin money and declare war, and the control of urban power has been under the political groups: bureaucracies and the rich who form the decision-making groups.

I quite love this analysis of all that has gone wrong with this — the distance between cities as they are lived, and professional knowledge and the demands of capitalism.

While government programs for urban development are quantitative and “factual, ” they are not facts as our cities know them through daily living. The conflict between the political rhetoric of government and the capitalistic realism of the private sector has been illustrated in the failures of architectural planning during the past 100 years of effort to “save the city.” (192)

This has meant the city has not been saved. It has meant the hollowing out of the urban core. Goldberg sets out most liberally to try and reverse this trend, to understand how cities are lived, how they improve lives, what practically can be done. This is the best that could have been done, perhaps, without a deeper challenge to capitalism and racism as they are made concrete in the city’s form.

We now must ask a question of our architects: can our almost deliberate urban deterioration be turned? Is there a realistic way toward urban rejuvenation which can shape us, our governments, and our human condition? Amidst the failure of our planners, does the architect know how to make a plan for the possible city, to give us a community we can pay for? A plan which can house both our density and humanism at the same time? I believe yes.

We also must ask a question of our governments about the spiritual destiny of cities: can we, through government action, stop the decay of humanistic values in our cities? Can we self-consciously restore the city as a center of community and the mystery of human warmth and spirit? I believe yes, but not yet. There will be a long delay. These values can be restored only when governments believe in humanism and believe that the city can be its shelter. Perhaps the architects first must believe, as Vitruvius warned, that they must know more about government than the king. Perhaps then the architects can teach the king. (193)

This puts Goldberg squarely into that group of architects and writers who see immense value in the city, who see it as ‘a center of community’ and a holder and catalyst for ‘human spirit and warmth’. So it fascinates me that he is building along the lines of the monumental and the towering and the concrete and Le Corbusier but leaning towards the equally monumental socialist vision of Krutikov, rather than the more patchworked, crooked, intimate and small-scale interventions described by say Alexander or  Gordon Cullen.

What Were Our Cities For?
Our cities, especially our failed cities, were planned in the early 19th century, and urban housing was shaped by the Industrial Revolution. These physical plans, now more than 100 years old, were conceived for a society different from the social change we are promising for the year 2000. Early American cities and their housing were not intended for attractive living, but rather for storing people on their upward trip to riches. In Europe, cities served to trap and store a service population for the elite. Today, within our inheritance of this deteriorated housing, we continue to hope to deliver our social promise for the 21st century. But deliverance is more likely to come from a totally new environment structured for a new society, and it is the shape of a new urban environment that we must now examine. (193)

So what is this new environment, what should it look like? With Marina City, Goldberg sought to create ‘A new form for Urban regeneration’, to imagine and build way of stopping white flight to the suburbs and preserving the necessary density in the city for a feeling of community. In this period when all the literature was promoting the suburban ideal and dispersal of families and homes and zoning to separate residential from commercial, Goldberg was instead promoting their concentration in the name of humanism. He lists the issues created by suburbanisation and lack of density — separating housing from work from culture from activities and entertainment, problems of sprawl and high transport costs.

It is clear that our concept of necessary population density must change to match our needs. But what do we need ? What must our city provide? Briefly, three urgently needed changes must be provided: (1) restore the city ‘s middle income population; (2) reduce the cost of housing in urban centers; (3) provide housing and living environment for new family types. These combined points must be enhanced with the magic element of concern for life that we call humanism.

On the relationship between architecture and density and community, he writes:

More recently we have come to understand density in the same way as the physicist understands the quantities of elements which create fission or fusion in molecular structure. Density is that number of people which creates the human fission or fusion we call communication, which in turn establishes community.

When the sociologist talks about community, does he also include the concept of humanism. Perhaps even faith? Faith in human spirit seldom comes without being reflected from another person. Community gives us that reflection of ourselves which we seem to need for survival. The poetry of our life is in community, and the city in its best form has sheltered and celebrated community.

Can the architect who designs for the facts or urbanism also design for the making of community? I do not believe these questions can be answered by architecture alone. Not until the people and governments training our architects believe in the need for community – believe that urban community is as important as urban economics – can architects once again design cities as the centers of our civilization. When the design of a community is as important as the design of a column, the architect will be able to form these new communities.

‘The poetry of our life is in community, and the city in its best form has sheltered and celebrated community.’ How beautiful that is.

I don’t think it is community exactly that is designed, but rather spaces that foster community. Marina City was Bertrand Goldberg’s attempt to build community through design, and built to cluster housing, employment, culture and entertainment all together:

MarinaCitymodel - Bertrand Goldberg
In addition to the two famous towers, the Marina City ­complex includes ­apartments, offices, restaurants, banks, a hotel, ­a theater, a boat marina, and even a ­bowling alley.

Marina City was the first modern complex in which the combined tenants provided 24-hour use of the facilities, seven days a week, on an urban site. It was the first to reduce the cost of modern living by providing broader use of its services throughout both commercial and domestic living patterns. Marina City also exercised an internal taxation system, and for the first time in America it privately absorbed the cost of supplying some of the social amenities normally provided by the municipal government. Recreation, health care, low cost housing, and access to jobs were supplied within the rent for apartments. (194)

It is also clearly a response to the lure of the suburbs with their lower taxes, their homeowner associations and increasingly privatised nature allowing middle-class people more amenities and better control over them. Goldberg is right that there is much more to this than any architect can control, and could any one person do better to build a utopian project in partnership with a union? What is more depressing, is how this perhaps fed into the increasingly privatised nature of development, the rise of gated communities, the increasing levels of segregation by class and race. As interesting is the question of how the residents interact with and feel part of the city around them if everything they need can be found without ever going outside, catching a train, interacting with many people who are not their neighbours.

But despite the quote from Churchill, I agree with this analysis of city and architect, making it all the more important to juxtapose the ideal with the reality created in terms of community.

The nature of the city is to be densely populated – it is the work of the architect to make it beautiful by making it possible to create community. Churchill said it best : ” We shape our buildings and our buildings shape us.” (197)

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Bertrand Goldberg: Dans La Ville

You can find Michel Ragon’s Goldberg: Dans La Ville or On the City, online now, part of the wonderful website that has tried to collect everything available on Bertrand Goldberg and his work. The book itself in physical form is long out of print and not to be found anywhere.

Myself, I’ve wanted to find out more about Goldberg since his work first stopped me dead in my tracks on a visit to Chicago, and I heard a little about his ideas and his ideals on the river cruise tour of Chicago’s architecture:

Chicago Skyline

Here his ideals are as described by Michel Ragon in Goldberg: Dans la Ville:

To save the heart of the city to rehabilitate, repopulate. revitalize the modern city, best characterizes Bertrand Goldberg ‘s architecture. His work is completely oriented toward the problems of the modern city. It is first of all an urban architecture, a high density architecture, an act of faith in the technical, industrial and mercantile city.

Thus Ragon places him in the tradition of Louis Sullivan rather than the 2nd Chicago School —

He thereby finds himself in opposition to both of the great Chicago leaders who followed that first Chicago School: Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe. In opposition to Frank Lloyd Wright, because Wnght, by embracing Rousseau’s philosophical celebration of the American prairie pioneers is a dis-urbanist; in opposition to Mies van der Rohe, because this leader of the second Chicago School was hardly concerned with the city, setting his jewel-like glass boxes down like strange objects in an urban landscape to which they contribute no new life.

Marina City, totally contradicted Mies ‘ work. Not only by its
form, in which the curve “thumbed its nose ” at the right angle, but also by its material (concrete instead of steel). Beginning with this architectural manifesto, Bertrand Goldberg undertook a veritable crusade against box architecture, advocating the naturalist shell form over the abstraction of the parallelepiped rectangle. In Chicago, Bertrand Goldberg ‘s Marina City (1963) seems to be a reply, almost an affront, to Mies ‘s Lake Shore Drive apartments (1951). The disciple revolts. (011)

I love this quote from Goldberg about this revolt:

“I was revolting against a century of static space, against the straight line, against the idea of man made in the image of the machine. All of Mies’ drawings are identical, whether they are meant to describe a factory, a hospital, or a private home. Mies perceived architecture like an artist, and the inhabitants as people who could be folded to fit inside. Faced with the realization that modern urban planning was heading for a catastrophe, if I turned to Mies to find an answer, it seemed to me that Mies was not an urbanist, but rather an anti-urbanist. In the end I transcended the notion of Mies’ post-and-beam structures without realizing it. Moving beyond these structures was inevitable. My own structures were geocentric. For Mies what was clear was in the form, not in the function. Now what is important to me is to give clarity to the function. Mies ignored the potential of American machines which could transform the nature of materials. He was a synthetic thinker rather than an innovator.” (017)

This led him in search of very different shapes and forms, a very different architecture:

His concern for man, for man ‘s development in an architecture which would no longer be box architecture, but rather a reassuring envelope, like an egg or a womb… (012)

but the form always had very practical reasons behind it, and demanded new materials:

Goldberg abandoned steel in favour of concrete because it was
the only material which allowed him to use the shell technique, and he proposed a round architecture because the cylindrical form reduces the effects of the wind force in a very windy city. But with their sixty-five stories, the Marina City towers became the tallest building in the world using this shape and this technique. (013)

And I love how he experimented with them, using his skills and imagination to try and meet the very real needs of a world emerging from war:

In any case, from his return from the Bauhaus until the Second World War, Bertrand Goldberg produced a great number of industrializable products . He wanted to create for the masses. Son and grandson of Illinois brick-makers , he was a child of the factory and the machine. Thus he studied the prefabrication of steel furniture, bathrooms , kitchens, and homes. He was completely absorbed by individual procedures and their applications to architecture. He designed prototypes for prefabricated houses with the aeronautic industry during the war. He also designed armament containers which could be transformed into housing once they reached Europe. (015)

3. A view of a unit bathroom appliance which contained a bathtub, shower, lavatory, water closet and plumbing. 4. A view of the shower fixture which was pivoted to permit a variety of uses. 5. A view of bathing a small child in the lavatory basin. 6. A view of the lavatory which was pivoted to swing either over the bathtub or over the water closet. Goldberg: Dans la Ville
3. A view of a unit bathroom appliance which contained a bathtub, shower, lavatory, water closet and plumbing. 4. A view of the shower fixture which was pivoted to permit a variety of uses. 5. A view of bathing a small child in the lavatory basin. 6. A view of the lavatory which was pivoted to swing either over the bathtub or over the water closet.

Out of this developed a new kind of architectural philosophy

A space created by a force (an egg) is different from one created by an intellectual concept (a box). The egg, the womb, the bee hive are forms which were brought about by forces. This leads Goldberg , through a paraphrase of the famous slogan “Form follows function” used by all proponents of functionalism, from Sullivan to Le Corbusier, passing through the Bauhaus, of course, to declare “Function creates form.” Thus the forces of structures more than the shapes of structures are what guide Bertrand Goldberg’s quest. And for a compact and complex architecture forming the equivalent of a neighborhood or a small city, this multiplication of forces and their interconnection are what must be taken into account. “When you create a building, says Goldberg , “you think of a structure, but when you create a community, you think of a series of forces reacting with each other.”

5. A view of the concrete balconies in the Marina City residential towers. Every habitable room in the towers opens onto a balcony. 6. The steel frame supporting the sprayed concrete lead-sheeted roof of the theater building. 7. The circular parking structure and the beginning of the apartment levels which both surround the already completed core structure. 8. Schematic floor plan of the structure of the apartment buildings. Goldberg: Dans la Ville
5. A view of the concrete balconies in the Marina City residential towers. Every habitable room in the towers opens onto a balcony. 6. The steel frame supporting the sprayed concrete lead-sheeted roof of the theater building. 7. The circular parking structure and the beginning of the apartment levels which both surround the already completed core structure. 8. Schematic floor plan of the structure of the apartment buildings.

So he thought about buildings in terms of forces and their relationships with each other, and this emerged out of a detailed observation of the forces that would be contained within his buildings:

Bertrand Goldberg ‘s architectural philosophy has been particularly useful as it is expressed in his hospitals: he never regarded a hospital as a building, but rather as an ensemble of social relations and functions for which architecture was supposed to be the graphic illustration. Bertrand Goldberg always devotes himself to a scientific study of the patterns of life in those settings he is responsible for designing. In hospitals the medical systems impose numerous restrictions on the architect which he must translate into architectonic shapes.

Health Sciences Centre -- State University of New York, Stony Brook. Goldberg: Dans la Ville
Health Sciences Center — State University of New York, Stony Brook

 

View of the complexe comprising the obstetrical and gynecological departments and the Institute of Psychiatry of the Medical Faculty of North Western University. The concept of a bed-tower rising above a base building housing the support services has been used in many of Bertrand Goldberg's hospital projects. The Prentice Hospital has solved the structural conflict between bed-tower and base columnar patterns by an engineering breakthrough : the first fully cantilevered high-rise shell. The base building rests on traditional concrete columns. Goldberg: Dans la Ville
View of the complexe comprising the obstetrical and gynecological departments and the Institute of Psychiatry of the Medical Faculty of North Western University. The concept of a bed-tower rising above a base building housing the support services has been used in many of Bertrand Goldberg’s hospital projects. The Prentice Hospital has solved the structural conflict between bed-tower and base columnar patterns by an engineering breakthrough: the first fully cantilevered high-rise shell. The base building rests on traditional concrete columns.

 

St Joseph's Hospital, Tacoma, with a schematic plan of the design for the surgical rooms. Goldberg: Dans la Ville
St Joseph’s Hospital, Tacoma, with a schematic plan of the design for the surgical rooms.

This concern for community, for human beings and their needs translated into a concern about the health of cities as a whole.

“The hard core of urban planning,” observes Bertrand Goldberg further “is people.” That means the users of architecture, the users of the city. (019)

2. Children use the public areas between the elderly and family buildings. The site plan was designed to promote the participation of the elderly residents in the activities of the children. Goldberg: Dans la Ville
Raymond Hilliard Center — Children use the public areas between the elderly and family buildings. The site plan was designed to promote the participation of the elderly residents in the activities of the children.

The following thoughts fascinate me as the phenomenon of white flight connected to capitalism’s spatial fix (the subject of my thesis after all) is here looked at so superficially, as a natural phenomenon almost, and an attempt made to save the central city by providing what they believe people seem to be in search of…They were in the middle of it after all, and I cannot help but applaud the effort and the unwillingness to accept the movement of whites and resources to the suburbs.

All large American cities saw their central population moving out to the expanding suburbs around their periphery. Chicago was no exception. Lewis Mumford spoke of modern cities in terms of “necropolis,” and Mc Luhan in Understanding Media (1964), affirmed that he was a resolute dis-urbanist. And Gutkind in The Twilight of Cities (1962), revived the thesis of the dispersion of living so dear to Frank Lloyd Wright, and declared ” Cities as we know them cannot survive’.’

Bertrand Goldberg observed the same exodus, but his conclusion was completely different. The sclerosis of downtown areas seemed to him to be a warning symbol of agony of a humanistic culture which he therefore intended to defend. To the originality of its round form Marina City added the much greater originality of creating , in two vertical blocks, a mini-city in which living, work, and recreation would mingle as they had done formerly in traditional cities. By situating his two towers on the bank of the Chicago River, Bertrand Goldberg was reconnecting symbolically with the old theme of water as a factor in urban animation. And since transportation and communication have become key words in contemporary life, he grafted his two apartment towers onto a port for boats and a garage for cars. Thus these two buildings were directly linked to the river, to Lake Michigan, and to the street. They didn’t constitute a privileged island in an amorphous center, but rather a kind of radiator (doesn’t their shape suggest a car radiator more than the ears of corn with which they are often compared?) which was to heat up lukewarm urban life. (012)

Ragon asks him this question  — ‘So why persist, then, in believing in the city as a moral and spiritual value?’ He answers:

“Because…people need to communicate personally with each other. This is a primitive instinct which architecture must understand, even if governments don ‘t always understand.” For,” says Goldberg, “communication makes community’.’

After communication , there is a second word which recurs the most often in his speech: community. (018)

This focus means he saw things very differently from most planners and architects of his time — the same ones we now excoriate (or some of us do anyway) for a nightmare of unsustainable sprawl and toxic and segregated lifestyles. This means he is a very interesting figure to return to in thinking about how we reimagine our cities, especially in light of energy descent:

Contrary to the urban planning tendency which favors the suburbs and decentralizes the city, Bertrand Goldberg believes that urban life will only be improved by increasing the population density. Denser urban communities would make it possible to finance public transportation , to develop high-technology companies, to offer an intense cultural life, and to economize energy resources. High density urban design would also make it possible to reduce the costs of housing and to lower rent prices…(018)

“A city can no longer afford the burden of buildings which are only used thirty-five hours a week,” adds Goldberg. “Spatial urban planning must therefore be multifunctional, and as open, as mobile, as possible. Cities, if they are not to wallow in perpetual budget deficits, must function all day long, spreading their operating costs among commerce, education, housing, leisure activity, and high-tech industries.” (019)

I’m not sure that density is in fact any more sustainable than other models on this scale, though Ragon states that:

In any case, Marina City demonstrated that a high population density in a well thought-out space didn’t cause any problems . The nine hundred families at Marina City, who form one of the most dense populations in the western world, live in perfect harmony. The rooms which expand from the center of the tower toward the outside give the impression of being larger than they actually are. And in summer, the barbecues on the balconies create the congenial feeling of an Indian camp . (012)

But there was a whole movement of tower blocks and megastructures that has to some extent been discounted these days. That said, I think many would still jump at the chance to actually live in one of Goldberg’s buildings:

And since we are discussing architectural futurology , Bertrand Goldberg ‘s work since 1959 illustrates another one of its notions: the megastructure, although he never uses this term, neither in his conversation nor in his numerous writings. Bringing together all the functions of a neighborhood in one architectural unit, conceiving thick buildings that reduce energy consumption , breaking down the classic skyscaper with buildings linked by horizontal as well as vertical passageways, moving in some way toward a spatial urban design : these are some of the advantages of the megastructure. But Bertrand Goldberg never uses the term “megastructure,” because he is wary of it. For him, megastructures like those proposed by the futurology of the sixties are too large. He prefers, as in his Stony Brook building , to separate the megastructure into sections and create focal points so that people can orient themselves and form clusters of activity. (014)

Goldberg: Dans la Ville
A view of the office building supported above its base structure. The base floor of the office building contains a recreational bowling its base structure. The base floor of the office building contains a recreational bowling alley and commercial retail space. The roof of the base is a recreational terrace for the office employees. The ten floors of office space are supported on a transfer system created by the columns.

Interesting that this also began in a way with Louis Sullivan here in Chicago:

In the tone of Bertrand Goldberg ‘s writings and in their philosophy there is an evident kinship with Sullivan, even with the mixed-use building which Louis Sullivan undertook as his first influential work. The Chicago Auditorium Building (1886-1889), a gigantic architectural complex , included an auditorium, meeting rooms, offices, and a hotel. And the skyscrapers were of course the first stage in this history of three-dimensional urban design which Bertrand Goldberg fully intends to bring to a new, influential form, moving from the static to the kinetic. (020)

Goldberg: Dans la Ville
Louis Sullivan – Auditorium theater. Chicago, Illinois, 1889.

There is also in both an idea of community and democracy that became centered in Chicago’s architectural traditions:

Like the poet Walt Whitman, who united the machine and democracy in his songs. Sullivan believed that from industrial society a profoundly democratic society would be born; the Chicago School became one of the first artistic expressions. And his disciple Frank Lloyd Wright, like him, bestowed a moral mission on architecture, proclaiming democratic convictions which his architecture was supposed to help propagate and consolidate.

There is much more here, particularly in Goldberg’s two essays that have been included and that I think I just might look at separately.

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Louis Sullivan: Autobiography of an Idea

Louis Sullivan - Autobiography of an IdeaLouis Sullivan enjoyed quite an extraordinary life, and both his architecture and his ideas about architecture have been immensely influential. After all, he helped create that amazing Chicago skyline. He must have been quite a character as well, here he writes about himself in the third person, writes expansively and exultantly with great gestures of his arms and a boundless enthusiasm for his subject and belief in his own talents.

I like him.

The third person thing almost works when he looks back to childhood, but it is mostly a little annoying. Still, this is packed full of amazing thoughts, insights, a bit of gossip, a good view into the mind that helped create the skyscraper and transformed our cities. Especially as he hated cities as a child. Here are his earliest feelings towards Boston:

As one might move a flourishing plant from the open to a dark cellar, and imprison it there, so the miasma of the big city poisoned a small boy acutely sensitive to his surroundings….Against the big city his heart swelled in impatient, impotent rebellion. Its many streets, its crooked streets, its filthy streets, lined with stupid houses crowded together shoulder to shoulder like selfish hogs upon these trough-like lanes, irritated him, suffocated him; the crowds of people, and wagons, hurrying here and there so aimlessly… (99)

He remembers being in awe of men at work, the power of the worker (he is a little obsessed with power as you will see), the wonder of the things they created. But still, he was most attuned to the natural world (as shaped by mighty farmers perhaps) than the urban one:

Thus there gradually arose within his consciousness a clearing sense of what a city meant objectively as a solid conglomerate of diverse and more or less intricate activities. He began indeed to sense the city as a power–unknown to him before–a power new-risen above his horizon; a power that extended the range and amplified the content of his own child-dream of power…In the open all was free, expansive and luminous. In the city all was contraction, density, limitation, and a cruel concentration. He felt that between himself and the city, as such, lay a harsh antagonism that seemed forever insoluble; as though men had made the city when they were mad; and that as it grew under their hands it had mastered and confined them. (102)

He studied at MIT in Boston, moved to Philadelphia to work with an architect, studied architecture in Paris at the École des Beaux-Arts for a year. That is when Louis came to Chicago to work, as it was still recovering from devastating fire. He felt the power of the vast prairies and the vast lake and the vast skies, and writes:

The train neared the city; it broke into the city; it plowed its way through miles of shanties disheartening and dirty gray. it reached its terminal at an open shed. Louis tramped the platform, stopped, looked toward the city, ruins around him; looked at the sky; and as one alone, stamped his foot, raised his hand and cried in full voice:

THIS IS THE PLACE FOR ME!

That day was the day before Thanksgiving in the year Eighteen Hundred Seventy-Three. (197)

Louis Sullivan circa 1895
Louis Sullivan circa 1895

That gives you a good sense of the flow and nature of his book. He describes Chicago as the Garden City — as it was before the great fire and its rebuilding.

There was a time a city some three hundred thousand strong stood beside the shore of a great and very wonderful lake with a wonderful horizon and wonderful daily moods…Around this city, in ever-extending areas, in fancied semi-circles, lay a beauteous prairie…while within this prairie, at distances of some seven to twelve miles from the center of the Garden City, were dotted villages, forming also an open-spaced semi-circle… (241)

He later describes Chicago again and its move from garden city to agricultural centre to industrial centre:

inasmuch as the reporter’s first query would be: “How do you like Chicago?” Next invariably: “Have you seen the Stock Yards?” and the third, possibly “Have you viewed our beautiful system of parks and boulevards?”

Then presto, as it were, came a magic change. The city had become the center of a great radiating system of railways, the lake traffic changed from sail to steam. The population had grown to five hundred thousand by 1880, and reached a million in 1890; and this, from a pitiful 4,00 in 1837, at which time, by charter, the village became a city. Thus Chicago grew and flourished by virtue of pressure from without–the pressure of forest, field and plain, the mines of copper, iron and coal, and the human pressure of those who crowded in upon it from all sides seeking fortune. (308)

In a way this really is an autobiography of THE IDEA…it is deeply personal in some of the childhood memories, vivid memories of feelings and events and people that shaped him and moved him closer to his understanding of man’s place in the world, and based on that, the role of architecture. There is nothing included here that does not move him closer — and perhaps nothing is more indicative of how he arrived at this idea and what it meant than the fact that it was not wife, children or friends that helped him arrive at it, only key family members from his childhood, teachers and a handful of work colleagues.

Louis saw power everywhere; and as he grew on through his boyhood, and through the passage to manhood, and to manhood itself, he began to see the powers of nature and the powers of man coalesce in his vision of an IDEA of power. Then and only then he became aware that this idea was a new idea, — a complete reversal and inversion of the commonly accepted intellectual and theological concept of the nature of man. (248)

That’s still a bit broad of course, what does it really mean? I’m still not sure I know what he means by power except that it is tied to his childhood awe at workmen creating, at bridges, trains, waterfalls. Slowly we arrive at a better sense of it:

…he saw set forth the emergence and the growth of science as the spirit of man sought and found freedom in the open. This coincided with his own belief, that man’s spirit must be free that his powers may be free to accomplish in beneficence. He had discovered, to his annoyance, that in the architectural art of his day, the spirit of man was not free, now were his powers so liberated and trained that he might create in beneficence….for centuries it had been the case that art had been belittled in superstitions called traditions….That Man, past and present, must and would become more and more significant, would be found to have filled a greater role than any art, than any science. That man, perhaps and probably was the only real background that gave distinction to works appearing in the foreground as separated things, — or perhaps was it the invisible spirit of mankind that pervaded all things, all works, all civilizations, and informed them with the sense of actuality? (254)

It’s about freedom and choice — and that choice is morally guided to create a better world. It’s a very manly choice however:

Implicit in true freedom of spirit lies a proud and virile will. Such glorious power of free will to choose, envisages beneficent social responsibility as manifest and welcome. Here now stands in full light Man erect and conscious as a moral power. The will to choose aright lifts him to the peak of social vision whence he may forecast new and true situations. (268)

It’s all quite gloriously overblown, isn’t it? It captures the sense of this age poised on the edge of a new time of plenty but still well aware down to its bones as it emerges from a depression of the farm, the hard work, the difficult life where survival must be fought for. Louis Sullivan himself goes on to list mankind’s primary powers: the worker, the inquirer, the chooser. But these are tied into his senses, his ability to take information in and to learn and grow and observe, and then to apply imagination and will. In that it is vaguely reminiscent of Holmgren’s permaculture principal actually, this book shows a very keen eye for observation and detail abounding in nature and the desire to draw from those the designs for buildings that shape our lives.

In the next quote, he reminded me immediately of Marx:

He had worked out a theory that every problem contains and suggests its own solution….For he had reached the advanced position that if one wished to solve the problem of man’s nature, he must seek the solution within man himself, that he would surely find the suggestion within man’s powers…(299)

in talking more about the solution contained within the problem, he is echoing a key permaculture idea as well as fully explored by Fukuoka:

…it is invariably found to be simple in nature, basic, and clearly allied to common sense. (311)

And his dream of a solution?

Our dream shall be of a civilization, a social fabric squarely resting on man’s quality of virtue as a human being; created by man, the real, in the image of his fruitful powers of beneficience; created in the likeness of his aspirant emotions, in response to the power and glory of his true imagination, the power of his intelligence, his ability to inquire, to do, to make new situations befitting his needs.

Such a dream is the vigorous daylight dream of man’s abounding power, that he may establish in beauty and in joy, on the earth, a dwelling place devoid of fear. That in so doing he shall establish an anchorage within his universe, in courage, in the mighty spirit of adventure, of masterful craftsmanship, as he rises to the heights of the new art of all arts, — the art of upbuilding for the race a new, a stable home. (273)

Everything here I rather love — though perhaps it is more nostalgia I feel towards an age where everything, including hope, looked possible. I love everything except the reference to race. It crops up a number of times in this rather messianic way. Makes me sad to be almost entirely certain he is meaning the white race when he uses that word, and the implications, well, I hate the implications. His partner was a Jew (as he notes), so at least he was including them in his vision. And maybe I am doing him a great disservice, I will reserve judgment.

What I do love is his commitment to democracy (though it is perhaps in the end more troubling than anything else depending on his view of race, and the massacre of Native American still taking place and etc):

For us the chief impress of the self-revealing story of mankind lies in the perception that all sanctioning power comes from below. From the vast human plenum we have called the multitudes, it arises gently, massively, step by step, stage by stage, height upon height…The spectacular and imposing groups and summits of the feudal superstructure have no other base, no other sanction.

His sympathies were always with the workers (though again, I wonder what his attitude was on unions), and later in describing this vast human plenum, he writes of all the people who worked their way up from nothing and states:

that this, their Country, was vastly more than the land of the free and the home of the brave; it was the noble land of equal opportunity for all; the true democracy for which mankind has been waiting through the centuries in blood and tears, in hope deferred. This, they cried, as one voice, is the Hospitable Land that welcomes the stranger at its gates. this is the great Democracy where all men are equal and free. (315-316)

That is the noble dream people still cling to I think. Yet this age was one of Indian wars, Arizona and much of the west were still only territories, the Monroe Doctrine had been in place for fifty years…it wasn’t innocent at all, but reading this you have to keep reminding yourself of that.

Anyway, the gossipy bits really come in relation to Daniel Burnham, rival architect who also gets much of the credit for Chicago and its skyline. Louis writes:

And the while, Burnham’s megalomania concerning the largest, the tallest, the most costly and sensational, moved on in its sure orbit, as he painfully learned to use the jargon of big business. He was elephantine, tactless, and blurting. …

Thus, there came into prominence in the architectural world of Chicago two firms, Burnham & Root, and Adler & Sullivan…Daniel Burnham was obsessed by the feudal idea of power. Louis Sullivan was equally obsessed by the beneficent idea of Democratic power…Each brooded incessantly. (288)

Pretty awesome.

Monandock Building, Chicago, seen from VanBuren Street.
Monandock Building, Chicago, seen from VanBuren Street.

I loved finding his views on the Mondanock, by Burnham & Root — the model for the skyscraper of Henry Fuller’s novel The Cliff-dwellers.

Then the “monadnock” went ahead; an amazing cliff of brickwork, rising sheer and stark, with a  subtlety of line and surface, a direct singleness of purpose, that gave one the thrill of romance. It was the first and last word of its kind; a great word in its day, but its day vanished almost over night, leaving it to stand as a symbol, as a solitary monument, marking the high tide of masonry construction as applied to commercial structures. (309)

This was about as high as masonry could go. I’m so looking forward to seeing it.

There were two other quite curious asides in here. One that just so strongly brought alive Edna Ferber’s So Big, and just how hard life was for women and how it turned them into things utterly negligible to men other than perhaps objects of pity

There were also the farmer, a typical extra-nasal Yankee; the faded, shriveled, worn-out wife… (20)

As we go back to a world closer tied to the soil through energy descent, we’d do well to remember this and avoid it if possible.

the other curious aside was about the Irish — Louis Sullivan’s father obviously was Irish but his mother and the grandparents who played a great role in raising him were Swiss.

The Sullivan could not be helped. It was scorned by all but its owner. They detested the Irish, whose peaceful penetration of Boston had made certain sections thereof turn green. (36)

That made me a bit sad, but this was the age of anti-Irish sentiment.

Louis Sullivan mentored Frank Lloyd Wright and would help inspire the first Chicago School of prairie architecture. This Dover edition of his autobiography is full of plates of his work, but without context and he himself writes very little on that. So I feel another book is in order, but to return to perhaps what was best (and perhaps worst) in him — the dream of architecture:

Such a dream is the vigorous daylight dream of man’s abounding power, that he may establish in beauty and in joy, on the earth, a dwelling place devoid of fear.

 

 

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Gwendolyn Brooks’ Maud Martha

Maud MarthaMaud Martha was stunning.

Every line of it was beautiful, thoughtful perfection. You can tell this was written by a poet. When I started reading it those first few pages made me keep putting the book down with a shiver of joy at the language. It is amazing to have two authors, Dybek and Brooks, remind me in just the past couple of weeks what a very visceral, physical pleasure reading can be.

WHAT she liked was candy buttons, and books, and painted music (deep blue, or delicate silver) and the west sky, so altering, viewed from the steps of the back porch; and dandelions. (1)

Yellow jewels for everyday, studding the patched green dress of her back yard. She liked their demure prettiness second to their everydayness; for in that latter quality she thought she saw a picture of herself, and it was comforting to find that what was common could also be a flower.  (2)

This is so much about home and its creation and its effects, but in that the fucked-upness of segregated American cities is omnipresent, and every now and then you glimpse a direct view of the city of Chicago in the background. And the sky.

The school looked solid. Brownish-red brick, dirty cream stone trim. Massive chimney, candid, serious. The sky was gray, but the sun was making little silver promises somewhere up there, hinting. A wind blew. (4)

There were lives in these buildings. Past the tiny lives the children blew. Cramp, inhibition, choke–they did not trouble themselves about these. (5)

How she loved a “hike.” Especially in the evening, for then everything was moody, odd, deliciously threatening, always hunched and ready to close in on you but never doing so. East of Cottage Grove you saw fewer people, and those you did see had, all of them (how strange, thought Maud Martha), white faces.  (9)

On every page I could find you a line to love. But we shall jump ahead to the tautness of Chapter 8 as they wait for Maud Martha’s papa to come home from a visit to try and get an extension on the mortgage to save their home of 14 years.

There was little hope. The Home Owners’ Loan was hard.

HOLC. I have read so much about them in rather more abstract terms. Just as everything this book reflects on poetically is so much more often written about in terms abstract or worthy. Very different from these vivid scenes brought alive through feelings, colours, sounds, smells…

And these things–roaches, and having to be satisfied with the place as it was–were not the only annoyances that had to be reckoned with. She was becoming aware of an oddness in color and sound and smell about her, the color and sound and smell of the kitchenette building. the color was gray, and the smell and sound had taken on a suggestion of the properties of color, and impressed one as gray, too. The sobbings, the frustrations, the small hates, the little pushing-through love, the boredom, that came to her from behind those walls (some of them beaverboard) via speech and scream and sigh–all these were gray. And the smells of various types of sweat, and of bathing and bodily functions (the bathroom was always in use, someone was always in the bathroom) and of fresh or stale love-making, which rushed in thick fumes to your nostril as you walked down the hall, or down the stairs–these were gray.

Organising tenants you see a whole lot of gray — though I don’t know that gray is the right colour for walls yellowed with tobacco smoke and damp and dirt. To me the word of horror was always dingy, that is the word contains all the smells and sounds of these buildings unified by poverty and overworked exhaustion and absentee landlords. I lived in those dingy places a long time, they strip life of its color. They get you down.

But oh, there is still some vibrance in the lives within them. You meet the people who live in the kitchenette building, meet all the hang-ups about shades of blackness and pretensions to class, all the terrible frustrations, the wonderful children whose faces light up like candles, the nameless ones who scream about the house, the two people who really love each other. They are vivid despite the gray.

There are moments of hate, moments of fear. A child being born. A life passing by and it is no one but the world’s fault that the dandelion world of the child should shift to the gray of the kitchenette building and the pressure of parenthood and adult life. Disappointments. Settling. Still finding those moments of beauty, but less often perhaps.

Near the end there is an inspired meditation on segregation and race and violence through Maud Martha’s disgust at cleaning out a chicken — refusing to touch it, hacking at its insides with a knife to do what butchers once did before the war:

And yet the chicken was a sort of person, a respectable individual, with its own kind of dignity. The difference was in the knowing. What was unreal to you, you could deal with violently. If chickens were ever to be safe, people would have to live with them, and know them, see them loving their children, finishing the evening meal, arranging jealousy.

When the animal was ready for the oven Maud Martha smacked her lips at the though of her meal. (153)

There is a kind of genius in that. I love that it sits alongside those crystalline lines and images of beauty that open Maud Martha, and are scattered throughout.

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Edna Ferber’s remarkable Chicago novel So Big

257443So Big, Edna Ferber’s 1924 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, is a wonderful book. I question why it was not listed and taught among the rest of those American classics. I imagine it would be if it weren’t written by a woman with a woman as its main subject, though it tries to fool you in the beginning that it is about Dirk De Jong. Really it’s all about his mother Selina, and not in the creepy oedipal way male authors would have done it.

She is amazing.

Selina grows up alone with her father–a small time poker player who reminds me strongly of one of the Maverick brothers (But is it Brett or is it Bart?). They lead a roaming, eventful, varied life of highs and lows. His death shatters all that, and she goes to become a small teacher among the farmers in that ‘incredibly Dutch district southwest of Chicago known first as New Holland and later as High Prairie.’ She falls for a handsome farmer, and her life follows a path very different from the one she dreamed of.

There are details about this new community that I love:

She did not then know that spotless window-panes were a mark of social standing in High Prarie. Yard and dwelling had a geometrical neatness like that of a toy house in a set of playthings. The effect was marred by a clothesline hung with a dado of miscellaneous wash…

Above all, the perspective of a woman on the effects of work, the terrible weight of rural farming life. Here Selina meets Maartje for the first time:

Selina suddenly saw that she, too, was young. The bad teeth, the thin hair, the careless dress, the littered kitchen, the harassed frown–above all these, standing out clearly, appeared the look of a girl.

Selina fears it. Swears it will not become her own fate. But you know that it is.

When the next ten years had done their worst to her, and Julie had suddenly come upon her stepping agilely our of a truck gardener’s wagon on Prairie Avenue, a tanned, and weather-beaten, toil-worn woman, her abundant hair skewered into a knob and held by a long grey hairpin, her full calico skirt grimed with the mud of the wagon wheel, a pair of men’s old side-boots on her slim feet, a grotesquely battered old felt hat (her husband’s) on her head, her arms full of ears of sweet corn…a woman with bad teeth, flat breasts, a sagging pocket in her capacious skirt–even then Julie, staring, had known her by her eyes…and had cried, “Oh, Selina! My dear! My dear!”–with a sob of horror and pity…

It is Selina who comforts her. Selina who no longer minds. Selina who is not bound by the need to be attractive and thus is found by many to be the one who is truly beautiful, outside of those conventions. Selina who has lived the fullest of lives. The lives of the ‘successful’, the sons and daughters born into wealth and position, fall far short. Her position at the death of her husband:

Youth was gone, but she had health, courage; a boy of nine; twenty-five acres of wornout farm land; dwelling and out-houses in a bad state of repair; and a gay adventuresome spirit that was never to die; though it led her into curious places and she often found, at the end, only a trackless waste from which she had to retrace her steps painfully. But always, to her, red and green cabbages were to be jade and burgundy, chrysoprase and porphyry. Life has no weapons against a woman like that.

And the wine-red cashmere. She laughed aloud.

It is Selina that you love and admire and think it would have been all right to have ended up that way — in a battered hat and men’s shoes and a shapeless body and still extracting every ounce of deliciousness from life.

Her story raises all kinds of questions. This deals with the conflict between love and self-realisation in this period (and I don’t want to say of course it does, because a woman wrote it, but really I mostly feel that way). Selina loved her husband, but she is not able to fully flourish until after his death. Not able to put into practice her innovative ideas for the farm like the asparagus beds that shocked the whole community rigid, not able to rise out of poverty and live a fuller life. She carries guilt over this because a part of her knows it…this is never resolved in the novel just as it cannot be in life.

I also question the narrative’s assumptions that innovation and a sense of beauty come from outsiders, that anyone desiring more  than survival via the truck farming methods passed down through generations demands running away the way Roelf Pool does. That is unquestioned here, a resounding yes. But unlike the many realist novels I have been reading, this is hopeful of what will and intelligence and creativity can achieve.

She is curious about everything, and I love that this novel also deals with food, how it is grown and who grows it. Their life. The political economy of vegetables and the poverty it creates, the transport of vegetables, the world grown up in Chicago streets around the wagons arriving from the farms:

Food for Chicago’s millions. in and out of the wagons. Under horse’s hoofs. Bare-footed children, baskets on their arms, snatching bits of fallen vegetables from the cobbles. Gutter Annie, a shawl pinned across her pendulous breasts, scavengering a potato there, an onion fallen to the street, scraps of fruit and green stuff in the ditch.

Selina is able to escape this by innovating, reading books, trying new things. She is fascinated by the beauty of what she grows as much as its importance to the health and wellbeing of all those who eat it. She imagines mothers making sure their kids are eating all of the spinach and potatoes she has grown. This is a time when people ate what was grown locally, could buy it direct if they chose, where farmers knew wholesalers and shopkeepers, where everything was organic. This novel fit in so interestingly with Fukuoka’s One-Straw Revolution, and you wished Selina might have met him. She would have loved permaculture too, just as she loved any field of knowledge that built, created, made — and that relieved those working the land from the terrible burdens that aged them so quickly, that killed them so young. That celebrated growing food and healthy lives.

Her son Dirk asks Selina her idea of a Chicago House, and she has already given it much thought, brings her experience of land and weather and living well:

Well, it would need big porches for the hot days and nights so’s to catch the prevailing southwest winds from the prairies in the summer — a porch that would be swung clear around to the east, too–or a terrace or another porch east so that if the precious old lake breeze should come up just when you think you’re dying of the heat, as it sometimes does, you could catch that, too. It ought to be built–the house, I mean–rather squarish and tight and solid against our cold winters and northeasters. then sleeping porches of course. There’s a grand American institution for you!

In many ways, this is an alternative narrative of the American dream of success. Not too different of course — it does lionize the business men who rose from butchers to meat-packing millionaires, those who made fortunes in grain, railways, vegetables and those who planned and built the city. It recognises not all of their methods were legal or moral, but that seems to be just part of their force upwards towards progress. They are set far apart from their beautiful discontented children who live empty though comfortable lives. In that it is very much like The Cliff-Dwellers, but pushes it further and offers a very different counter-narrative of where a woman’s happiness lies. Its sympathies in describing Dirk’s college for example, are always with those who have scraped and saved to work hard in gaining learning from the bored gilded youth who have arrived there for a little polish and take way as little actual knowledge worked for and won as possible.

There is also the uncomfortable fact that Selina’s escape from desperate poverty into a life with some comfort and fullness is partially funded by the family she befriended through the higher class boarding school her father had scraped up the money for her to attend before his death. They help her son as well Ferber doesn’t quite know what to do with that, has Selina expressing it only to have her doubts relieved because strength of character and intelligence like hers will always come out on top. The novel lets you believe it, so in the end you have to give thanks to gloomy realism once again.

Here is Dirk’s success, bounded socially, racially and geographically:

There was always a neat little pile of invitations in the mail that lay on the correct little console in the correct little apartment ministered by the correct little Jap on the correct north-side street near (but not too near) the lake, and overlooking it.

Hi office was a great splendid office in a great splendid office building in LaSalle Street. He drove back and forth in a motor car along the boulevards. His social engagements lay north. LaSalle Street bounded him on the west, Lake Michigan on the east, Jackson Boulevard on the south, Lake Forest on the north. He might have lived a thousand miles away for all he knew of the rest of Chiacgo–the mighty, roaring, sweltering, pushing, screaming, magnificent hideous steel giant that was Chicago.

Selina is the opposite.

Her years of grinding work, with her face pressed down to the very soil itself, had failed to kill her zest for living. She prowled into the city’s foreign quarters–Italian, Greek, Chinese, Jewish. She penetrated the Black Belt, where Chicago’s vast and growing Negro population shifted and moved and stretched its great limbs ominously, reaching out and out in protest and overflowing the bounds that irked it…They thought her a social worker, perhaps one of the uplifters. She bought and read the Independent, the Negro newspaper in which herb doctors advertised magic roots.

If she had read more of the newspaper, she would have known it was also full of quality reporting on world events and racism and local politics — The Chicago Defender was one of the most legendary of African American papers for example. Edna Ferber occupies that strange ground of American liberal that can’t really seem to question fundamental injustices and inequalities, while still exposing some of the cruelty and racism’s unnecessary boundaries. At the same time, she takes for granted white supremacy:

Never mind, Selina assured him, happily. “It was all thrown up so hastily. Remember that just yesterday, or the day before, Chicago was an Indian fort, with tepees where towers are now, and mud wallows in place of asphalt. Beauty needs time to perfect it.”

Ferber wrote Showboat, of course, which I have seen rather than read. Paul Robeson and Hattie McDaniel steal and subvert some of the overt racism of it, but it remains a fascinating commentary on the one drop rule and rife with stereotypes. She wrote Giant as well, which I am now more curious to read.

I’ll end on reading, and the nice things women do for other women — there is in the beginning a casual list of classics that Selina has read. It includes Dickens but is mostly women — Austen and Bronte, but also Felicia Hemans, who I had not heard of but will now read. And then there is a list of popular women’s literature of which much is available on Project Gutenberg and looks quite interesting — Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth, Bertha M. Clay and The Fireside Companion. Southworth wrote these amazing serialized stories about Capitola the cross-dressing madcap having fabulous adventures across the country. How have I never heard of those?

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Stuart Dybek’s Chicago Coast

Stuart Dybeck - The Cost of ChicagoWhy did no one tell me about Stuart Dybek before? These stories were extraordinary. Just as a writer I found the quality of his prose alone making my little heart beat faster, these stories are breathtaking. But these are also stories of a working class kid growing up in a fucked up but well-loved Catholic, half Polish half Mexican neighbourhood. A view and a voice that is all too rare, and perhaps explains why no one has told me about Stuart Dybek before. It involves memories, beauty, urban myths, cross-race romance that brings shame and wonder, music, weed, wandering, the ordinary overlaid with magic.

Mrs. Kubiac’s building seemed riddled with its secret passageways. And, when the music finally disappeared, its channels remained, conveying silence. Not an ordinary silence of absence and emptiness, but a pure silence beyond daydream and memory, as intense as the music it replaced, which, like music, had the power to change whoever listened. It hushed the close-quartered racket of the old building.

Then of course, there is the short story ‘Blight’ that so embodies the lived experience of urban renewal — everything I care most about, have fought over.

During those years between Korea and Vietnam, when rock and roll was being perfected, our neighborhood was proclaimed an Official Blight Area.

This is the relationship with power poor people know far too well:

Still, in a way, I could see it from Ziggy’s point of view. Mayor Daley was everywhere. The city was tearing down buildings for urban renewal, tearing up streets for a new expressway, and everywhere one looked there were signs in front of the rubble reading:

SORRY FOR THE INCONVENIENCE
ANOTHER IMPROVEMENT
FOR A GREATER CHICAGO
RICHARD J. DALEY, MAYOR

A series of paragraphs I have gathered that seek to understand what this declaration of blight means, the point of view the young men who live there — who are themselves more than likely seen as blight by the men in suits:

It was the route we usually walked to the viaduct, but since blight had been declared we were trying to see our surrounding from a new perspective, to determine if anything had been changed, or at least appeared different. Blight sounded serious, biblical in a way, like something locusts might be responsible for.

Nor did anyone need to explain that Official Blight was the language of revenue, forms in quintuplicate, grants, and federal aid channeled through the Machine and processed with the help of grafters, skimmer, wheeler-dealers, and army of aldermen, precinct captains, patronage workers, their relatives and friends. No one said it, but instinctively we knew we’d never see a nickel.

Blight, in fact, could be considered a kind of official recognition, a grudging admission that among blocks of factories, railroad tracks, truck docks, industrial dumps, scrapyards, expressways, and the drainage canal, people had managed to wedge in their everyday lives.

What its last days were like, and the vibrance that existed there before the destruction:

It was an old neighborhood that Mayor Daley, despite his campaign promises, was preparing to demolish to make way for a new university. But life went on that summer as it always had — daily newspapers printed in strange alphabets; nuts, cheeses, dried cod sold in the streets; the scent of crushed lemon from the bakery that made lemon ice; Greek music skirling from the restaurant downstairs.

It is not all easy to sympathise with, honest in the lines of race that divided neighbourhoods and their changing contours:

Douglas Park was a black park now, the lagoon curdled in milky green scum as if it had soured, and Kapusta didn’t doubt that were he to go there they’d find his body floating in the lily pads too.

And always a sense that the past hardly exists:

It was hard to believe there ever were streetcars. the city back then, the city of their fathers, which was as far back as a family memory extended, even the city of their childhoods, seemed as remote to Eddie and Manny as the capital of some foreign country

What past there is is constantly under threat, actively being destroyed through the destruction of the city:

The past collapsed about them–decayed, bulldozed, obliterated. They walked past block-length gutted factories, past walls of peeling, multicolored doors hammered up around flooded excavation pits, hung out in half-boarded storefronts of groceries that had shut down when they were kids, dusty cans still stacked on the shelves. Broken glass collected everywhere, mounding like sand in the little, sunken front yards and gutters. Even the church’s stained-glass windows were patched with plywood.

This feeling — I know this feeling.

Things were gone they couldn’t remember but missed; and things were gone they weren’t sure ever were there…

At times, walking past the gaps, they felt as if they were no longer quite there themselves, half-lost despite familiar street signs, shadows of themselves superimposed on the present, except there was no present–everything either rubbled past or promised future–and they were walking as if floating, getting nowhere as if they’d smoked too much grass.

I know I’m just quoting the things that touch upon all I obsess over in thinking about cities have been made, could be remade. It’s almost like Marshall Berman writing crystalline stories of coming-of-age perfection to encapsulate his pain of losing the Bronx. There is so much beauty and life here beyond that, and this last line is splendid:

He had special windows all over the city. It was how he held the city together in his mind.

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Henry Fuller’s Chicago: The Monadnock

I enjoyed Henry Fuller’s The Cliff-Dwellers (1893), though mostly because it satisfies many of my fascinations with the intertwining of the physical city, capitalism and social mores. Also, I am going to visit my brother in Chicago for Christmas! So there will be more upcoming about this amazing city. Fuller’s writing is pleasant enough though, it might be enjoyable if you loved none of those things.  ‘The work has been called the first American novel about modern city life’, and is centered on the Clifton Building  modeled on the 1891 Burnham and Root Monadnock Building.*

Vintage Postcard of the Monandock Building, Chicago, seen from VanBuren Street.

Welcome to 1890s Chicago:

It is a wild tract full of sudden falls, unexpected rises, precipitous dislocations. The high and the low are met together. The big and the little alternate in a rapid and illogical succession. Its perilous trails are followed successfully by but few — by a lineman, perhaps, who is balanced on a cornice, by a roofer astride some dizzy gable, by a youth here and there whose early apprehension of the main chance and the multiplication table has stood him in good stead. This country is a treeless country — if we overlook the ” forest of chimneys ” comprised in a bird’s-eye view of any great city, and if we are unable to detect any botanical analogies in the lofty articulated iron funnels whose ramifying cables reach out wherever they can, to fasten wherever they may. It is a shrubless country — if we give no heed to the gnarled carpentry of the awkward frame-works which carry the telegraph, and which are set askew on such dizzy corners as the course of the wires may compel. It is an arid country — if we overlook the numberless tanks that squat on the high angles of alley walls, or if we fail to see the little pools of tar and gravel that ooze and shimmer in the summer sun on the roofs of old-fashioned buildings of the humbler sort. It is an airless country — if by air we mean the mere combination of oxygen and nitrogen which is commonly indicated by that name. For here the medium of sight, sound, light, and life becomes largely carbonaceous, and the remoter peaks of this mighty yet unprepossessing landscape loom up grandly, but vaguely, through swathing mists of coal-smoke.

From such conditions as these — along with the Tacoma, the Monadnock, and a great host of other modern monsters — towers the Clifton. From the beer-hall in its basement to the barber-shop just under its roof the Clifton stands full eighteen stories tall. Its hundreds of windows glitter with multitudinous letterings in gold and in silver, and on summer afternoons its awnings flutter score on score in the tepid breezes that sometimes come up from Indiana. Four ladder-like constructions which rise skyward stage by stage promote the agility of the clambering hordes that swarm within it, and ten elevators — devices unknown to the real, aboriginal inhabitants — ameliorate the daily cliff-climbing for the frail of physique and the pressed for time.

26075449-2The tribe inhabiting the Clifton is large and rather heterogeneous. All told, it numbers about four thousand souls. It includes bankers, capitalists, lawyers, “promoters”; brokers in bonds, stocks, pork, oil, mortgages; real-estate people and railroad people and insurance people — life, fire, marine, accident; a host of principals, agents, middlemen, clerks, cashiers, stenographers, and errand-boys; and the necessary force of engineers, janitors, scrub-women, and elevator-hands.

All these thousands gather daily around their own great camp-fire. This fire heats the four big boilers under the pavement of the court which lies just behind, and it sends aloft a vast plume of smoke to mingle with those of other like communities that are settled round about. These same thousands may also gather in installments — at their tribal feast, for the Clifton has its own lunch-counter just off one corner of the grand court, as well as a restaurant several floors higher up. The members of the tribe may also smoke the pipe of peace among themselves whenever so minded, for the Clifton has its own cigar-stand just within the principal entrance. Newspapers and periodicals, too, are sold at the same place. The warriors may also communicate their messages, hostile or friendly, to chiefs more or less remote ; for there is a telegraph office in the corridor and a squad of messenger- boys in wait close by.

In a word, the Clifton aims to be complete within itself, and it will be unnecessary for us to go afield either far or frequently during the present simple succession of brief episodes in the lives of the Cliff-dwellers.

There’s so much there – the excitement of the new and previously unimagined height of steel and stone, this complete world that human beings have created for themselves. It is the essence of the city boiled down in a way, almost so much so that the rest of the city is superfluous — yet this is entirely built and run with the wealth generated by the city’s building and growing through the destruction of the countryside and the cultures it once nurtured. It is the conversion of the natural world into the human and mechanical, a new kind of landscape.

So that possibly explains what the fuck is going on with the whole tribe thing, the peace-pipe, the campfire — it’s as though by taking the land (destroying it, recreating it in steel and brick) through the murder of its the original inhabitants, these early immigrant Europeans tried to take over some of their souls, some of their rights to the ground they are getting rich on by re-enacting the rituals they associated with Native Americans. Re-enacting them, but in their own vernacular — the material rewards of unbridled capitalism and the cafes and cigar-shops of the buildings in which all was planned, financed, and brought to fruition. The title itself recalls the beautiful Native American buildings high in the American Southwests’ cliffs, I find it an extraordinary and strange appropriation.

There are only white people in this novel, you can be sure of that. Though they are graded.

Back to buildings, this was the view from the top:

A clear day came ; he conducted them up to the roof-observatory and showed them the city, and they numbered the towers thereof.

The old people tiptoed gingerly around the parapet, while Ogden waved his hand over the prospect — the mouth of the river with its elevators and its sprawling miles of railway track; the weakish blue of the lake, with the coming and going of schooners and propellers, and the “cribs” that stood on the faint horizon — “that’s where our water comes from,” George explained; the tower of the water-works itself, and the dull and distant green of Lincoln Park ; the towering bulk of other great sky-scrapers and the grimy spindling of a thousand surrounding chimneys; the lumber-laden brigs that were tugged slowly through the drawbridges, while long strings of drays and buggies and street-cars accumulated during the wait. (211)

This is a book with characters who made early financial successes (and those neither ethically nor legally), but mostly about complete failure. There is plenty of failure here. Only optimism abounds, and a curious portrait of the Chicago ‘native’:

Ogden smiled. He saw that he was face to face with a true daughter of the West; she had never seen him before, and she might never see him again, yet she was talking to him with perfect friendliness and confidence. Equally, he was sure, was she a true daughter of Chicago; she had the one infallible local trait — she would rather talk to a stranger about her own town than about any other subject.

When it’s the ladies doing it, you smile. But when it’s arrogant men?

George felt his heart give an indignant throb. He seemed to see before him the spokesman of a community where prosperity had drugged patriotism into unconsciousness, and where the bare scaffoldings of materialism felt themselves quite independent of the graces and draperies of culture. It seemed hardly possible that one short month could make his native New England appear so small, so provincial, so left-behind.

“You’ve got to have snap, go. You’ve got to have a big new country behind you. How much do you suppose people in Iowa and Kansas and Minnesota think about Down East? Not a great deal. It’s Chicago they’re looking to. This town looms up before them and shuts out Boston and New York and the whole seaboard from the sight and the thoughts of the West and the Northwest and the New Northwest and the Far West and all the other Wests yet to be invented. They read our papers, they come here to buy and to enjoy themselves.” He turned his thumb towards the ceiling, and gave it an upward thrust that sent it through the six ceilings above it. ” If you’d go up on our roof and hear them talking — ”

” Oh, well,” said George ; ” hadn’t we better get something to eat?”

” And what kind of a town is it that’s wanted,” pursued McDowell, as he pulled down the cover of his desk, ” to take up a big national enterprise and put it through with a rush? A big town, of course, but one that has grown big so fast that it hasn’t had time to grow old. One with lots of youth and plenty of momentum. Young enough to be confident and enthusiastic, and to have no cliques and sets full of bickerings and jealousies. A town that will all pull one way. What’s New York ?” he asked, flourishing his towel from the corner where the wash-stand stood. ” It ain’t a city at all; it’s like London — it’s a province. Father Knickerbocker is too old, and too big and logy, and too all-fired selfish. We are the people, right here…” (88-89)

I’m rather fascinated by it all because it feels so alien, so horrible, so particular to a time and a place, yet it has resulted in these cities I know, walk through, even love.

I do love Chicago.

A part of me does love that building.

I am sad that the gross materiality of this world should still exist, as well as  its xenophobia  — though anti-immigrant sentiment points in a different direction now. It brings into the view the conflicting levels of racisms:

During the enforced leisure of his first weeks he had gone several times to the City Hall, and had ascended in the elevator to the reading-room of the public library. On one of these occasions a heavy and sudden down-pour had filled the room with readers and had closed all the windows. The down-pour without seemed but a trifle compared with the confused cataract of conflicting nationalities within, and the fumes of incense that the united throng caused to rise upon the altar of learning stunned him with a sudden and sickening surprise — the bogs of Kilkenny, the dung-heaps of the Black Forest, the miry ways of Transylvania and Little Russia had all contributed to it.

The universal brotherhood of man appeared before him, and it smelt of mortality — no partial, exclusive mortality, but a mortality comprehensive, universal, condensed and averaged up from the grand totality of items.

In a human maelstrom, of which such a scene was but a simple transitory eddy, it was grateful to regain one’s bearings in some degree, and to get an opportunity for meeting one or two familiar drops. (55-56)

There’s a complete aside further on that sheds some further light on the subject?

“Oh, well,” began George, with the air proper to a launching out into a broad and easy generalization, ” aren’t we New England Puritans the cream of the Anglo-Saxon race ? And why does the Anglo-Saxon race rule the globe except because the individual Anglo-Saxon can rule himself?” (225)

Because it’s all mixed up with race and class and East v West (or dead centre, but this was still a couple decades before Arizona even became a state, so Chicago could still think of itself as the West I suppose. But California was sitting there, state since 1850)

“Why are things so horrible in this country?” demanded Mrs. Floyd, plaintively.

“Because there’s no standard of manners — no resident country gentry to provide it. Our own rank country folks have never had such a check, and this horrible rout of foreign peasantry has just escaped from it. What little culture we have in the country generally we find principally in a few large cities, and they have become so large that the small element that works for a bettering is completely swamped.”

He looked almost pityingly on his brother. “This is no town for a gentleman,” he felt obliged to acknowledge. “What an awful thing,” he admitted further, ” to have only one life to live, and to be obliged to live it in such a place as this!” (237-238)

And of course, for anyone obsessed with real estate and the building of cities and how that enters discourse and culture and also props up capitalism, this is a gold mine. Like this new speculative development built in the marsh:

Occasionally it did dry up and stay so for several weeks. Then, on bright Sunday afternoons, folly and credulity, in the shape of young married couples who knew nothing about real estate, but who vaguely understood that it was a “good investment,” would come out and would go over the ground — or try to. They were welcomed with a cynical effrontery by the young fellow whom McDowell paid fifty dollars a month to hold the office there. He had an insinuating manner, and frequently sold a lot with the open effect of perpetrating a good joke.

McDowell sometimes joked about his customers, but never about his lands. He shed upon them the transfiguring light of the imagination, which is so useful and necessary in the environs of Chicago. Land generally — that is, subdivided and recorded land — he regarded as a serious thing, if not indeed as a high and holy thing, and his view of his own landed possessions — mortgaged though they might be, and so partly unpaid for — was not only serious but idealistic. He was able to ignore the pools whose rising and falling befouled the supports of his sidewalks with a green slime ; and the tufts of reeds and rushes which appeared here and there spread themselves out before his gaze in the similitude of a turfy lawn. He was a poet — as every real-estate man should be. (104)

There are also these descriptions of this great city in a state of existence I can barely imagine knowing the city today, like this progression from centre to suburb in the industrial and not-too-pretty 1890s:

He had reached the point where he felt it would be a relief to cut away from town and everything in it … only so many miles of flimsy and shabby shanties and back views of sheds and stables; of grimy, cindered switch-yards, with the long flanks of freight-houses and interminable strings of loaded or empty cars; of dingy viaducts and groggy lamp-posts and dilapidated fences whose scanty remains called to remembrance lotions and tonics that had long passed their vogue; of groups of Sunday loungers before saloons, and gangs of unclassifiable foreigners picking up bits of coal along the tracks ; of muddy crossings over roads whose bordering ditches were filled with flocks of geese; of wide prairies cut up by endless tracks, dotted with pools of water, and rustling with the dead grasses of last summer; then suburbs new and old — some in the fresh promise of sidewalks and trees and nothing else, others unkempt, shabby, gone to seed ; then a high passage over a marshy plain, a range of low wooded hills, emancipation from the dubious body known as the Cook County Commissioners — and Hinsdale. (176-177)

I love this too — a summer custom even then recognised as brought from country to city, older times to new and now of course changed, but people still sit out on their stoops:

The spring trailed along slowly, with all its discomforts of latitude and locality, and then came the long, fresh evenings of early June, when domesticity brings out its rugs and druggets, and invites its friends and neighbors to sit with it on its front steps. The Brainards had these appendages to local housekeeping — lingering reminders of a quick growth from village to city. Theirs was a large rug made of two breadths of Brussels carpeting and surrounded on all four sides with a narrow border of pink and blue flowers on a moss-colored background. This rug covered the greater part of the long flight of lime-stone steps. In the beautiful coolness of these fresh June evenings Abbie frequently sat there on the topmost step, under the jig-saw lace-work of the balcony-like canopy over the front door, while her mother occupied a carpet camp-chair within the vestibule and languidly allowed the long twilight to overtake her neglected chess-board. (186)

So to end with a conversation that in many ways sums up the great arrogance, the narrowness and racism and a dash of misogyny, and the pride of city that defines this urban area and the people who live within it for Fuller:

” Can it be that there are really any such expectations here as these?” He addressed Fairchild exclusively — the oldest and most sedate of the circle.

“Why not?” returned Fairchild. “Does it seem unreasonable that the State which produced the two greatest figures of the greatest epoch in our history, and which has done most within the last ten years to check alien excesses and un-American ideas, should also be the State to give the country the final blend of the American character and its ultimate metropolis ?”

“And you personally — is this your own belief ?”

Fairchild leaned back his fine old head on the padded top of his chair and looked at his questioner with the kind of pity that has a faint tinge of weariness. His wife sat beside him silent, but with her hand on his, and when he answered she pressed it meaningly; for to the Chicagoan — even the middle-aged female Chicagoan — the name of the town, in its formal, ceremonial use, has a power that no other word in the language quite possesses. It is a shibboleth, as regards its pronunciation ; it is a trumpet-call, as regards its effect. It has all the electrifying and unifying power of a college yell.

“Chicago is Chicago,” he said. “It is the belief of all of us. It is inevitable; nothing can stop us now.” (248-249)

—–

*Encyclopedia of the Chicago Literary Renaissance, By Jan Pinkerton, Randolph H. Hudson

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