Tag Archives: development

Not Easy Being Green

long viewIt is – or, rather, was – just an ordinary, unremarkable stretch of sidewalk, emanating from the end of a bridge for a block or two down a busy city street; its one distinction, if it can be called that, is that this straight ribbon of pavement had, for the 30 years we’ve walked on or driven past it, been lined by jungle-like and uncontrolled growths of weed trees and bushes and grasses, held as if prisoners behind a low-slung metal traffic barrier which kept pedestrians and vehicles from tumbling down the steep cliff from which this wild flora grew. The wall of green wasn’t pretty, really – only once a year, when a popular bike race whizzes by it, does it get any attention and minimal trimming – but, for those of us living in a concrete-coated city, and to the people who live in the houses lined directly across the street from it, it was a wall of green, a respite, something like an oasis, a natural amenity. Something left alone to be itself, and give its gift, meager though it might be. And, yet, it was a length of urbanness that, if you were mapping the street from memory, you might forget to put it in – it was that personality-less, that undistinguished. It was just there, negligible but subliminally felt.

tree line

Careful readers may have noticed the use of the past tense in the previous paragraph. Trucks with choppers and grinders and saws pulled in not too long ago, and by the time they left, every bit of green was sliced away to near ground level, leaving a rude and rough-hewn gash in the landscape. For the residents of the houses opposite, this must have been not only a shock but, actually, a bit of a pleasant one: for, though the greenery is gone, they now have, unobstructed, one of the best views in the neighborhood – the old town area laid out at the foot of the cliff, the canal and river beyond, and, past those, hills and an interstate highway in the distance. People pay a lot for that view and, suddenly, these folks on the street, after decades of gazing out at an impermeable green wall of leaves and vines, now have that great view, and on somebody else’s dime.

street view

viewEnjoy that view while it lasts, folks. People don’t just clear-cut a forest-y patch for no reason that doesn’t have to do with making money, and so it is here: Soon that gap will be crammed with a dozen or more new townhouses – the uninspired, same old/same old three-stories-and-a-roof-deck, stuccoed and sided ticky-tacky crap that every developer in this area seemingly tore out of a sample book and is stuffing into every lot and open space, and, in this instance, deforesting a swath for it. And, presently, that strip of road, once benefitting from a feeling of some openness, some connection with nature no matter how corralled and limited, will become somewhat more like a canyon, or, certainly, a hemmed-in byway.

And for the pedestrians, like us, who barely acknowledged the existence of this corridor that was the on-ground equivalent of a flyover, we will feel that even though this couple of hundred feet never had anything that one would define as placeness, and certainly nothing resembling art, its absence will generate a lost placeness in our memories. It will be different. It will feel unbalanced and missing an essential element, which it will. Though it was never exactly friendly, it will be decidedly less-so. The air will be different, blighted by the predatory parasitism of modern developers. The light will be different, too. What was undistinguished will now, by comparison, seem distinguished by its congesting mediocrity. We, who cared nothing for this piece of land, will now long for the past nothingness that it was and curse the something that it has been forced to become.

laid waste

You don’t know what you’ve got till its gone, someone once wrote, and this applies even if you didn’t notice it when it when you had it. Sometimes, perhaps, even more so. I never cared if that piece of the world existed or not; now I am outraged that it is going and gone, taken and lost. Is that placeness, or what?


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I’m Keepin’ My Alumni on You

I have always thought that if I were lost in the wilderness, with, as Mr. Dylan put it, no direction home, and with no hope of getting back unassisted, it’s not a map or a GPS device that I’d wish for – I’d just need a direct connection to my college’s alumni office. They can find you anywhere.

It has been a long time since I graduated from the mega-university I attended – it was good to be in school back then: so much less to know, so much easier to impress people by having an undergraduate degree – and, in these intervening years (OK, let’s be honest – decades) I have resided at no less than eight different addresses, in three states. And yet, without my sending a change-of-address note to the alumni folks, I could be assured that a letter from them to me – not forwarded from the previous address, mind you, but to me at the new address – would almost beat the moving truck to my front door. The witness protection program surely has no protective firewall sufficient to elude these folks.

What I get from them, periodically and predictably, is the general university alumni magazine and, from time to time, the publication of the department from which I wrestled my Bachelor’s. Both come wrapped with mixed blessings: it is mortifying to be reminded of how long ago I was there, it is cold-sweat-inducing to see how assured and competent and already-accomplished (even famous) current students and recent alums are at doing what it is I had hoped to do; however, I am also aware that I seem to be doing no worse than others in my apparently underachieving class and, happily, much better than those whose names appear among the dead. Could be worse. I read these publications quickly, look for any recognizable anyones or anythings, then toss them into the recycling bin of history.

But it is those other things that I get from the alumni office that have got me to thinking. You know which ones: the requests for money, and all for different things – scholarships, general fund, building fund …. The alumni office can always find you, and, armed with that information, the development office will never let you go. 

But, why should I give the university anything? Didn’t we have a deal that both of us lived up to? I gave them money, they provided me with education. Thanks very much. Nice exchange. Might do business with you again sometime. What is it that makes them think that I have any greater gratitude that would cause me to want to donate more than I have already? This was business, not personal. Why would they expect me to want to keep slipping gratuities to them for a job that they were expected to do? Why would they expect me to like them any more than they liked me? The experience of college was, if I got lucky, supposed to change my life, or enhance it – it’s not as if they saved my life, and I am in their debt forever. I went to school. I no longer go to school. Case – and relationship – closed. 

Before you judge me as cold, heartless and unsentimental – in fact, I am warm, heart-filled and irredeemably mushy – let me add a piece of information that might explain my attitude (although it doesn’t explain the alumni-giving phenomenon): I did not live on campus as an undergraduate. I left home, checked in, sat and absorbed, chatted, and, at the end of the day, went home. It was like a day at the office. At times, a pretty gangbusters day at the office, but still…. I can see, I understand, that those who lived on campus might have a closer relationship with the place. And that’s the key: It’s all about place. It is easier to buy into the whole thing, to be fully and even perpetually seduced by it, if what you are linking to is the physical gestalt of the process. You give, when the alumni association asks, because the university was a place that you identify as one where you grew up and made friends and were on your own for perhaps the first time. (Although, I can’t remember sending extra money years later to landlords of places I lived as a developing adult, because I happened to have experienced similar things in their 1-bedroom apartment.)

What I am suggesting, then, is that the alumni strategists are banking on, even playing on, the school’s artistry in creating a fabrication, a stage set, and a play upon that stage that will make you want to pay to be an audience-participant again. I have always felt that those most involved in alumni activities must be the ones who have, at  some time, then or now, been unhappy with home life and found a rah-rah surrogate within the university confines. I, thankfully, have not had such sadness or need, and, ergo, no required substitute. Life has to be built on what you have now, merely referring to what you had then. To see those college years as the best years, to see the university setting as the memorable place, is a sort of pathetic misguidedness, a clinging, trying to grab a handful of mist.

But the stuff must work. Alumni give oodles of bucks to their alma maters. Interestingly, the biggest contributors do so with a sense of literal placeness: they want their names on buildings. The art of the creation of placeness results in the architecture of place, which can be molded into the purposeful molding of placeness, which in turn … and so on, ad and dollars infinitum.

If, indeed, I am correct in postulating that the alumni imperative is to create placeness in order to create endowments, then the greatest fear of higher education must not be Scrooge-y people like me but, rather, the corner that they are painting themselves in through Internet and distance learning. As the upkeep of physical plants, as well as the pay and benefits of professors and administrators, eat up too much of the profits and take a bite out of the savings, universities necessarily are expanding into the cheaper, less overhead-burdened and relatively more lucrative online world; there are even institutions of learning that exist solely in the ether. And the p.r. and marketing brain trusts can work themselves into a frenzy creating friendly websites and colorful and canny brochures designed to to convince perspective students that these placeless places are a “campus,” but they are not. And, so, if what is transpiring is more what I felt and feel – an education-for-dollars transaction – and if there is no placeness in the mix to trigger some sort of home-like feeling, then the alumni-giving machine is screwed. What feeling of gratitude does one have – and, especially, one that translates into future alumni-giving dollars – to an online learning experience? You might just as well send a few bucks to Apple, thanking them for the MacBook, or to Firefox for the nifty browser, or to Herman Miller for the ergonomic desk chair. (But, of course, you wouldn’t do that – what you might do is buy another one of those items … as I might go back to the school I attended, if they offered what I wanted, and were good or the best at it.) And how will all this impact the future of universities and, in this peak-oil world of ours the future of campuses? 

I am an alum. That fact comes up in conversation only when I discover that the person I am talking to also is an alum of the same school. It is a point of coincidence and information – it is not a point of communion. That we went to the same place, but in different years and for different pursuits, makes us nothing more than strangers with one shared line on our resumes. And no reason at all to contribute to the Founders Fund, no matter how tax-deductible it may be.

Truth be told, I like getting the alumni magazine. But I like getting the L.L. Bean catalog just as much. And, somehow, though I have never stepped foot into the actual Bean world, they have been able to create more of a placeness in their mailings than the alumni magazines have. These days, I feel closer to Bean than I do to my decades-ago location of learning. But I feel no need to pay them any more than my shopping cart holds.

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The Place of Space

Anyone who has ever taken an art class quickly learns that whites are as important as blacks, negative space is as important as positive (sometimes more so), empty shapes are as important as solids – spatial perception requires both. It is that ability of the brain to determine the shape of objects and their position in space based on the way that light falls on an object and reflects off its surfaces, and the resulting shadows it casts.

In vast landscapes where there are few objects to see, there is an inability to judge distance and space. Probably the opposite of that, having too many objects crammed together without any space between – as in a dense city environment – causes just as much deadening of perception.

When we first searched for our future home, there were two neighborhoods that held interest for us. The one we chose was, in the 19th century, a textile-mill town built on and up steep hills of a gorge created by an active, picturesque and formerly industrial river. The other neighborhood possibility was a low-lying flood plane adjacent to a larger and commercially-trafficked river. Aside from the natural topographical differences, the other more meaningful attribute at that time was housing stock. Both neighborhoods were probably of a similar vintage with working-class rowhouses as their currency for shelter, but what we noticed right away was that in the hilltown, there was a good balance of houses to green areas – whether it was small caged yards, grassy strips along curb-lines or quite a few wooded lots, mostly on the unbuildable steepest slopes but also some just interspersed, breaking up the monotony of house mass. This, as opposed to the flatter neighborhood that had almost an equal number of empty, demolition-scarred lots in proportion to the number of houses. There were vast tracts of land separating one or two lonely looking houses, and you knew that they had not been built that way. Plus, whatever green space existed was empty, weed-covered lots that sometimes extended for entire blocks. If not for the disrepair and the age of the buildings, there was something suburban about the large swaths of emptiness: kind of like Detroit has become as a result of all its missing housing and destroyed neighborhoods.

We determined that too much desolate, open space, in city terms, does not make for a livable or desirable environment (and, too, in suburbia but that is a different issue).

Fast forward twenty-five years. Development has become rampant in both neighborhoods. The flatter one, having a huge amount of developable space, has been able to absorb, so far, any project that shows up. There will be limits, however.

That brings us to the hilltown, which was pretty much well-developed by the mid-20th century. In fact, then, you could not give away the houses here, the area was so undervalued. Sometime in the late 20th century, the fates reversed and properties’ values increased tenfold. Then, every scrap of land, no matter how small, started to have potential for income-production. As the buildable scraps of land became new housing, no matter how compressed into a site they were, the scramble for fast turn-around in a ballooning market overtook common sense or sanity. It was a new kind of gold rush in them thar hills. And despite the downturn of the real-estate market in the past handful of years, the erection (and we don’t use that term lightly) continues. It has reached a point now that is absurd – absurd because much of the old housing stock is empty and languishing, waiting to be bought, and, most absurd is that the very thing that attracted us to this area, the balance of hard surface to green, is disappearing rapidly, reversing the livability factor and making every block a continuous, relentless hard-surfaced canyon.

Too much positive space, almost zero negative space – the only negative space left being streets for cars. In the greed and pillaging of the land, the very qualities of living on it have been diminished. It is one of those theorems of inverse proportion in which the popularity of a place can become its own destruction. Humans are weird that way.

Our arslocii theory has been that placeness occurs when the object and the site enhance one another, creating a greater whole. Without negative space balancing the built environment, there is solidity without respite, no relief, no shadows, no place you would want to be. Just as the vast tracts of empty land are discomforting, so are the overbuilt canyon walls. In some ways, the city is becoming not unlike expressways with their sound barrier walls – chutes that we are pushed through like cattle – having no connection to any of the surrounding landscape, not knowing where we are and having no distinct landmarks. Creating a nowhere.


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That Ugly Piece of Land

For all the years we’ve lived in our house, the lot diagonally across from us has been an eyesore. Originally a small farm, at one time another structure had stood on that largish, now-urban piece of land; today, only a house, one of the oldest in the neighborhood at nearly 150 years, and a similar-age former stable (now, since moderate gentrification, an artist’s studio) remain, acting as two sides of a frame around the plot, the other two being sidewalk and intersecting streets. The land – maybe 70‘x 66’ – is, essentially, the house’s ample side yard.

For a while, when an elderly woman lived in the house, there was at least an attempt at keeping up the yard. Grass grew patchily on most of it, and the woman had a neighborhood man (in some way related to her) cut it, as well as occasionally trim the scruffy bushes that grew wildly in and around the once-beautiful, classic cast-iron posts and rails that bordered the property. But there was also an improvised barbecue pit – literally a pit, dug deeply into the ground. And a ramshackle, lean-to of a shed housed an old yellow dog named, ironically, Champ (the first in a series of poor dogs over the years, one of whom had the good sense, fueled no doubt by desperation, to slip his chain, dig under the gate and race into the night, never to be found).

“The Idiots” moved in after the old woman got sick and died. “The Idiots,” as we came to call them, were composed of the old woman’s sister, the sister’s grown children and an assortment of kids whose parental lineage would give pause to scientists doing genome mapping. This crew hissed and ranted in frustration and bigotry, making no friends except for the paranoid zombies they sold drugs to. And, under their stewardship, the yard went to hell: it became a dust bowl, as most of its grass died or was worn away, and what remained grew as crazily as its untending and untended humans; the graceful fence was torn down and pillaged, replaced with chain link; trash, broken toys and detritus of all sorts were strewn all throughout the yard; and cars, dragged in, unworking, were left there, the silent victims of the elements and the house’s perhaps mentally disturbed and certainly surly teen boy, who would attack them with baseball bat or an axe, smashing them into ruin when he wasn’t otherwise occupied in hacking at the bare earth with whatever destructive implement he could find.

The people were horrible; the yard was terrible.

And yet …

After police raids, foreclosure pressure, housing-inspector revulsion and several ownership changes, what sits there now is an earthmover that has scraped the land raw into a simulacrum of the lunar surface and scooped out a network of trenches in preparation for the construction of three new houses – a foolish project of truly pedestrian design, built unnecessarily in an economic climate that predestines its doom.

As I try to picture that trio of sticks and stucco creating a wall of residential impermeability, I find myself experiencing something akin to nostalgia for that ugly, gap-toothed yard. It had some, if not much or lovely, greenery. It had a rolling contour and non-uniformity. It provided, if not the open space beloved by environmentalists, then a sense of welcome, air- and light-filled elbow room. It said: Not every square foot of a residential community needs to or ought to be covered with the fruits of a design-built imperative, not every square inch needs to host development. What will be lost is standing on a sidewalk with ground-level all around you; where there was a breeze there will be a curb cut, a garage door, a three-story cliff face and the hum of air-conditioning units. What that homely piece of land said was: Even an unkempt, ignored, even abused space has something of communal value to offer, if only to be a landmark and a bit of shared history.

Once the houses are built, no longer will I be able to glance out my window and see the lumpy and irregular wall of the former stable, the elegant hawthorne and redbud trees in its backyard, the houses and chimneys beyond – the art of years-long, organic, unplanned growth of a human-scale settlement.

Often, one will not realize that a place has placeness until it is a casualty of “replaceness.” One can frequently not see the art until it is succeeded by the artless. Already, with its terrain stripped and full of ditches, that old, ugly, rotten piece of land, with its genuine “beauty” and rarity, has become something I miss, even as the genuinely crass pushes it out of everything but memory where, oddly, it will only grow in my affection, and be a place I recall not just with fondness, but with the weight of a keeper of the keys to things past and gone.

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