Tag Archives: placeness

Artless City

There is an art to cities – in the way they are planned, in the way they are built, in the manner in which they develop both intentionally and organically, in the way they respond to unexpected internal and external forces, in the way they confront and respond to age, in the way in which the residents live their lives in relation to these urban plans, changes and vagaries. Some cities become fine works of art, others do not; some become both, consecutively, alternately, moving forward or backward, often repeatedly so, as the fates, citizenry and city fathers allow. The art-ness of cities is fluid, and can vary from block to block, decade to decade, administration to administration.

It is hard to tell if Philadelphia is a work of art now, on the way up or the way down. For the most part, its central core has seen much construction and advance, and especially impressive and comforting growth of those things that attract tourists, young people and empty nesters: music, theater, museums and galleries, restaurants and shopping. It benefits from the great number of single-family homes and apartments right in the heart of the Center City area and immediate in-city surrounding neighborhoods; it is a place that never has suffered that deadness of a downtown that empties after work hours. There seem to be a lot of bars and bistros feeding off the disposable income or the credit-card debt of hordes of twenty- and thirtysomethings, as well as Boomers and expense-accounters.

It is also a city of staggering poverty, of disturbing and frequent violent crime, of acres of empty lots and decrepit housing in rundown sections out of sight of the more bustling and cosmopolitan center. There is the natural tension where the two worlds of Philadelphia – the poor and the better-off – meet, along borders, in rapidly gentrifying areas, pushing the edge of the inner edge city, where abandoned factories and remarkably cheap housing entice artists and pioneers and the brave, threatening the turf and tax bills of the longtimers. There are also places in the downtown area where that poverty and decline pop up and encamp, as a sort of movable blight, creating surprising and dismaying stage sets in a kind of street-theater conceptual art that lacks aesthetics but instead is deadly serious doings. Market Street is one of those stretches.

1900

As one could safely guess, Market Street – or what has now been labeled as Market East – has been a commercial corridor at least from the time of Philadelphia’s earliest settlers, as their ships docked along the Delaware River shore and unloaded merchandise, which was then distributed on carts and in shops popping up and moving westward from the water, following the spreading population. Within living memory, the seven blocks of Market between 7th Street and City Hall were home to seven department stores, as well as dozens of shops of all sorts. Market was never the fanciest shopping street – parts of Walnut were more high-tone, sections of Locust were oddly exclusive – but it drew customers, and it was a family strolling street, going from Wanamaker’s to Snellenburg’s, Gimbel’s to Lit’s, Howard’s to Robinson’s, and to Strawbridge & Clothier. It was a street of rites of passage and city lore: here is where hundreds of thousands of Philadelphians went to see Santa, where they had their first grown-up restaurant meal, where they would go to the Grand Court at Wanamaker’s and hear the daily pipe-organ concerts and meet at the Eagle. It was more than a shopping street, or a destination – it was the stage set, a place of memories and where one became part of the great continuity that is city life.

market-street

Starting around the Sixties, Market Street began to change noticeably. The better stores disappeared, to be filled with t-shirt and sneaker shops, and low-end retail; whole rows of stores were demolished to make way for office buildings and parking garages. Lately a convention hotel has been built, and a landmark high rise has been converted into a hotel, as well. Stores vanished when the idea for an in-town mall came to fruition, and the Gallery – appropriately named, in this discussion about art and the city – like malls everywhere, became a big-box magnet and category killer. There are amenities for tourists and conventioneers, but not many.

And where once there were seven department stores, now there is one. It has gone through three name changes and, as a Macy’s, no longer has any hometown lineage, and except for the organ and eagle, no local DNA. Snellenburg’s died and departed long ago, as did Robinson’s and Howard’s; Gimbel’s has been a street-level parking lot for decades, and the site of dashed developers’ dreams for just as long. Strawbridge’s and Lit’s have been converted into office buildings, with a smattering of retail at ground level.

For one who works in one of those buildings and who exits onto Market Street five days a week when the sun is similarly making its exit, the art of the city is difficult to interpret, and certainly to appreciate. The street surface is filthy, foul odors emanate from a sewer system overtaxed by the flushings of shoulder-to-shoulder multi-story buildings, a deadening darkness pervades the streetscape as shops – those that are not vacant – close early or roll down their metal grates over the windows of their unlighted businesses. It is by no means “Blade Runner” but it is a vista that resonates with several layers of failure and many more layers of tolerance for what should be intolerable.

stores

So much for the set ­- now for the actors. A walk up Market Street more and more seems like a stroll down a byway in a third-world country, with the lame and beggars lined up, trying to snag some change from passing tourists and dayworkers headed home. These are people in dire shape and straits, and they are not to be ignored; but, not too long ago, there was a campaign by a local group with the poster tag-line, “The more you give change, the more things stay the same,” and that is the philosophy we follow. But we all play our roles: they ask, we politely decline, and that’s that. Some passersby behave as if these people do not exist, not acknowledging their presence. Very few of us actually give, and these are often visitors from other countries. But there is almost a dance of request and rejection, and both sides know their lines and, really, know how the scene will end. Indeed, some of the panhandlers ask for things – a dime for a meal, a quarter for coffee or a bus ticket – that are so patently ridiculous on the face of them that they are bound to lead to the failure that is predetermined even if their “pitch” were better. But there is, in that walk up Market, an element of danger, of some fear, of the possibility of a confrontation or an accusation, and then violence.

homeless

Market Street, once a benign place of commerce – not the city’s liveliest, or best, but certainly one of its most solid – has become emblematic of a changing urban “theater,” one we no longer wish to be in the audience of. We all, in the city, put up with too much to get what we think we need. When one no longer gets that, nor gets it in a way that is satisfactory – when one realizes that there is no reason to put up with so much unpleasantness, that one no longer wants to take it anymore, that what we believed to be the city’s placeness is mutated or gone completely – then it is time to say that this city as art is no longer to our taste, and that it’s time to direct our gaze elsewhere.

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A Timely Entrance

daily_scheduleWe all are creatures of schedules, whether by adhering to them or ignoring them, purposefully or by perverse nature or by mindlessness. Some of us couldn’t function without them; others resent them; for many of us, it is both. Still others pretend that they live without any schedule at all.

The typical time frame in the so-called work world is 9 to 5, give or take an hour on either end, but in this 24/7, internationally plugged-in life cycle we find ourselves in, work can commence at any hour, and in so doing the “ordinary” world seems to lurch – they don’t call it a “shift” for nothing. And pity those whose shifts vary, regularly or otherwise, such as police officers and firefighters, who might have long days followed by short days followed by days off, and a change in hours, as well. This spreads out decent schedules and terrible ones in an equitable sharing, but it has to wreak havoc on their sleep patterns, not to mention their personal lives.

We here at arslocii are people who, over the years, have had less scheduling than most. Some might call it “underemployment.” But, when you work for yourself you have to create your own schedule, and that can be difficult for many, impossible for others. Freedom requires discipline.

timeclock

Change being the only unchanging certainty, we, though free spirits that we are, have found ourselves for more than a decade as someone else’s employee, on someone else’s clock. Not that this was a new concept – we’ve had lots of jobs – but, rather, a bullet we had dodged for a while. And, maybe because of that avoidance, in some sort of karmic payback we ended up having to design our lives around a 4 p.m to midnight  work-time slot. What that meant was that we had part or most of the daylight hours to attend to stuff of our own and had to “time-shift” what we would normally do in the late afternoon until after the witching hour because the real hours belonged to an employer. Once you get used to the rhythm, it isn’t so bad. But, because of the schedule, our dinner time was around 3 in the afternoon. Again, you can get used to it. So we did. We got pretty good at it, in fact. It got to feel like normal. We wondered how others could survive on those horrible 9-to-5 work-release sentences. Other than realizing that the world’s insistence on stupid, standardized work hours meant that we could no longer attend evening socializing of any sort, we felt that we had the best of all possible worlds – except the one where you don’t work for anyone else … or work at all.

Then suddenly, unrequested, this year they changed the schedule on us, to noon to 8 p.m., and Sunday through Thursday. Now, most everyone would think that this would be an improvement over the previous work-day period. It even moves us closer to “normal” hours. But not quite, not enough. In fact, in some ways, in many ways, it is an even worse schedule. After seven-plus years of afternoon dinners, we now are forced to dine at 9 pm. Explain that to your trained stomach. And, by the time you pack up your stuff and get out the door, you still can’t make that 8 o’ clock curtain. Also, where did the hours go for taking care of home-based stuff? You don’t have a day, you don’t have a night. What’s left is maybe two hours in the morning and possibly (if you can stay awake after a meal) two at night. Think about how quickly two hours can disappear without notice and – wham! – suddenly your whole life becomes somebody’s lousy dime. Of course we need that dime. We are grateful for the dime. Others envy us our dime. Some might think us spoiled and entitlement-obnoxious for complaining about that dime. But, still …

In the midst of this upheaval, though, we have found something that we didn’t expect: a renewed sense of placeness. When you go to work to the same place at the same time with the same people every day, you cease to notice any of it, and you come to believe that that is all there is to the place of work and the tasks you and others do. Then, you find yourself coming in at a different time, and the workplace seems something new, even alien. Whereas before, on a later shift, we would come in just as the day-crowd was leaving, and all we knew of them was the transitional passing off of information, chitchat and uncompleted work. They were them; we were us. Eloi and Morlocks. As different, in a real sense, as day and night. But now we are among the day people, and the room that is, at night, quite empty is, when the sun shines, a lively place full of workers who, until now, were just shadows who left their stuff for my group to tidy up and send on its way.

What you see, what you sense, is that a workplace, one with numerous shifts that go on around the clock, is like a theater that never closes, and that you used to think that the production – comedy? tragedy? – began and ended with your entrances and exits and lines, but now you realize that the show was going on before you arrived and continues after you leave, that work life is like this endless ribbon that you are merely a snippet of cut off at random lengths, and that the place hums to more tunes than you ever imagined. It’s a new script, but somehow you know your lines and the choreography; it’s a familiar set, yet something is different enough to make you think that you missed the memo and a few dress rehearsals, and it makes you aware, perhaps for the first time, or for the first time in a long time, of the artificiality of it all – that offices and factory floors are like Potemkin villages to which you grant the gift of reality, whatever that is, so that you can do what you have to do and believe in it.

So, from a simple rejiggering of when you show up for work, what you might come away with is the knowledge that, in all other things in your life you believe yourself to be the star of your own movie, but here you are but a member – perhaps even just in the chorus – of a large and revolving cast, and that the “set” has a lot more storyline outside your own than you ever thought. And somehow, somewhere in there, there is art.

uattend.time_clock

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Ways and Means

As creatures of habit, once we establish ourselves, we find our favorite routes to and from. Some of us never vary our paths; others are more experimental in mixing it up a bit, for variety’s sake. I once worked with a guy who had his routes, by car, so mapped out that he knew exactly how long each one would take: 7 minutes and 32.5 seconds – yes, that precise, and he loved to offer his statistics. Kind of scary.

I do find that once I like a certain path, I will repeat it since it becomes predictable and safe. And I am definitely a shortest-distance chooser, meaning that if there is a choice between the fastest route (higher speed, when it likely takes you out of the way) and a slightly slower one (that connects the start and end points in a straight-ish line), I prefer the latter. Of course, here we are talking about roadways. But whether it is by bicycle or on foot, I will move according to “as the crow flies.”

Another factor that determines my paths is a sense of comfort with the terrain. I just don’t feel safe in multilane highways that slice through undeveloped parcels and give the traveler no sense of context, let alone placeness. It can be like a big, open-range cattle-herding chute, in stampede mode. We have way too many of these behemoth roadways and they disconnect people from places. It is an earthbound version of the “fly-over,” which is how all of America between the east and west coasts is referred to by east- and west-coasters. We have set up thousands of miles of “drive-over or -through” zones. I consider these avoidance paths.

screen map

I am a map person – I know that that places me somewhere in the pre-Holocene epoch – and loving the in-hand maps includes the wow factor of the mind-blowing concept that crazy/brave explorers mapped out our world, long before GPS appeared. I not only value what they did but I cherish what they left for us. Maps are wonders of the world – how were they designed, conceived and realized? I have seen some of Lewis and Clark’s first renderings of the Mason-Dixon line. Did they find a path or did they make one? Native Americans followed deer paths and Lewis and Clark followed Native Americans. Now we follow road engineers who don’t believe that the land knows best – they just cut down anything in the way; and it never ends up being a straight line anyway.

I admit I don’t warm to GPS or even to Internet mapping programs because they lack context. There is no where there. Certainly I can follow directions, although they are not always accurate. Instead of beaming in on the micro, a real map will give you the whole picture, and then you can find the specifics. On a device, you have a very narrow window through which to view your options. If you move out, the detail is lost, street names disappear; move in and you are a dot with maybe three lines surrounding you. With a map, you have an entire region and you can maneuver through it in different ways. And you will probably learn things along the way, as opposed to accepting and following one way. Sometimes getting lost with a map in hand can be challenging or exhilarating, since it offers you options for self-correcting. I always feel safer with a map nearby, it is a guidebook to the ground. And as long as we are grounded, it is useful, necessary.

iPad

Recently, relying on a web-based mapping program in a rural area – it, sadly, was the only option (well, there’s one point for the electronic version) – but it mapped the wrong address on the wrong road, and had its little pointer pointing to the end of the road for the destination. Strangely, the real road continued on despite the virtual road having ended, but the blinking dot (meaning my car) just kept moving along the empty space of non-existent road on the virtual map. Talk about scary. The road ends/it doesn’t end and the virtual car has found the other side of the looking glass. It was the cellphone to the rescue, in this instance.

Yes, it is miraculous and bizarre, and a bit scary, that a satellite can find you and follow you – yet, apparently it doesn’t care where you are. But think about the miraculousness of a piece of paper that a) someone created, b) after someone trekked, c) after someone measured in distance and contour: mountains, rivers, oceans, roads, and drew it all in an organized system of scale.

Look at a real map and find those squiggly lines that snake up a mountain or alongside a creek. That’s the path I want to take, in this case not a straight line but as straight a line as nature provides, the contours of the land molded by wind and water. If we follow such paths, who knows where they might lead?

ny map

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Who’s That Nut-Nut-Nut-ing at My Door?

I like to think that I can communicate with non-human animals. I don’t eat them, and maybe that gives me an edge, since they can smell it on us. Or, maybe I am just open to other creatures, so it happens. Yes, I have opposable thumbs – big deal – I don’t think that is the only meaningful attribute in the universe.

Many years ago, we were living in Allentown, Pa., in the upper two floors of an old Victorian twin. The house sat at the top of a big hill with amazing views west, a precarious and exciting spot for watching thunderstorms roll in. The yard swept steeply downhill and, because of its pitch, stayed as a rather wild area. There were many small animals that made their homes on that hillside. I watched their daily patterns as they grazed about in the late afternoon: rabbits, squirrels, woodchucks, chipmunks and birds. There were times when I witnessed bunnies playing leapfrog in the grass, just as frolic-y and fun-loving as squirrels. I would sometimes sit in the yard and watch them as if it were a scheduled performance, one I would have gladly paid to see.

So on one of those occasions, as I was sitting in the grass, the entire community of small mammals showed up simultaneously, whereas usually their timing was as separate acts, with a bit of overlap. My partner was coming up the path alongside the house, and stopped. It was like a Disney moment, with me and these other wild creatures all going about our business in perfect harmony. A peaceable kingdom, indeed. The bunnies were perhaps a couple of feet away from me, and the whole cast of characters surrounded me, as if I were a tree in their landscape. I talked softly to them. This went on for minutes and we shared a moment. Arslocii.

Disney moment

I have always talked to animals; at a zoo, where a pacing wild cat would suddenly start purring and pressing its flank against the bars; to squirrels, many times admonishing them to stay out of harm’s way. In March, I was working in my community garden plot and was visited by a robin who, of course, was excited by the digging. I started talking to this robin, and when a huge worm would surface I would toss it over to Robin (let’s call him/her that). Every day after that, Robin would show up and serenade me, or call to me from a tree; then, upon hearing my voice, would hop over to greet me. My partner was digging in the plot one day and Robin showed up. After hearing the wrong voice, Robin flew away.

I am an appreciator of squirrels, despite the fact that so many people see them as pests. We have a small courtyard that is an oasis, if not an animal refuge, in a hard-surfaced city neighborhood. Squirrels come into our courtyard every day, sometimes to bury things, since we have one of the few breaks in the pervasive cement. One squirrel likes to eat the samaras on our paperbark maple tree. I don’t mind as long as the smaller branches don’t break, although they often do. To ameliorate the damage, I started setting out small fistfuls of peanuts in the shell. Since there is more than one squirrel, I am learning a lot about their differences. There is a huge chubby one that sits in the pile and scarfs down the nuts, scattering empty, broken shells every which way. There is a slimmer one who systematically buries all the nuts, maybe eating one or two, but leaving no trace that there ever were peanuts.

tail

I don’t put out nuts every day, maybe every few days. They all get taken, but I can tell who got them by what is left or not left behind. I have witnessed, lately, that if the fat guy got the nuts, the thin guy gets angry and kind of acts out, running around the courtyard and digging up some of the stored booty. I have talked to this particular squirrel and explained that there is more to come, just be patient.

Yesterday, the overfed one’s thievery must have happened again because the thin squirrel was excavating previously stashed nuts. And, surprisingly, a few shells were left on my steps. But the peculiar thing was that, sitting in an empty plant tray on a low wall, there was a single peanut still in its shell and with telltale dirt marks from its burial. Mind you, I always pile the nuts far from the stairs and door, to give a sense of safety to the hungry diner. Was this squirrel telling me something, making an offering, or asking for more? This had never happened before. It was a sign.

1st sign

This morning, while I am sitting at the kitchen table next to the partially open window that separates the kitchen from the courtyard, I hear a strange chirping sound. It is unfamiliar but insistent. I look out – and there is the thin squirrel looking straight at me through the door, and the chirping is emanating from the squirrel. It is a request, I understand. More nuts, please, sir. (And, so, more nuts were given.)

An interspecies communication, a breaking down of barriers, a placeness. It is a wonderful thing. And right in my own backyard.

offering

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Fingers, and That Place in Time

reelWe needed to cut the grass. Just three weeks before, we’d used our push mowers and trimmed the green stuff to well under ankle height. Now, after the perfect combination (if you are grass) of steady rains alternating with bright and warm days, the undulating lawn was covered in knee-high weeds waving in the breeze and tall, shaggy patches of growth. They were also still wet from a recent downpour, and try as I might, I couldn’t get the manual mower to do anything but run over the tall stuff, bending and flattening it but doing far too little in the way of cutting it. Stepping back to consider my work, I appeared to have been trying to create crop circles to fool and excite the UFOlogists in the neighborhood.

What was needed was a power mower. We could borrow one, or, if need be, rent one. But a power mower is something I will not, can not, use. It has nothing to do with the loud noise of it – although I do dislike the sound, especially up close – nor the smell of the clouds of exhaust. It has everything to do with this: When I was a kid, my Uncle Charles had a power mower – the electric kind, with a long extension cord that snaked back across his well-kempt lawn to an outlet inside his suburban ranch house. He was mowing one day – maybe a day like the one I was now trying to mow in – and, perhaps, the wet grass clumped up and choked the works, clogging the blades and bringing the mower to a halt. I don’t know the exact details – I don’t think I ever asked. I think I didn’t want to know, although now I do, a little. Anyway, for reasons I can never quite wrap my mind around, my Uncle Charles decided that he could remove that clump of grass, and he put his hand out and reached for the obstruction … and the mower started up. And he lost his fingers – all on that hand except for his thumb. Just like that. And family lore has it that when my Aunt Lena found him on the lawn, he was banging his hand against the lawn, not in pain but in utter anger at his stupidity.

mower(somegeekintn)

It was a moment where he could have gone one of two ways: to do what he did, or to turn off the mower, or unplug it, and then try to unclog it. But, in that moment, that split second ­– that place in time that altered his life forever – he felt that he could do the job just by grabbing at the grass. Did he feel that there was no risk? Or did he think that it was a reasonable risk? Or did he just think the wrong thought? Or did he not think at all? In a breath, in the twist of a wrist, everything changed.

And thinking of this, I thought of the brother of a friend, a guy who worked nights and headed home in the early still-dark hours of the morning. He took the same route all the time. But this one morning … did he miscalculate the distance between him and the oncoming truck, or did he not see it, or was he so tired that morning that he couldn’t think straight, or did he think that he could make it? A reasonable risk, or no risk at all? But he pulled away from a stop sign, into the intersection, and he was dead before the other vehicle hit its brakes. What happened in that hair’s breadth of a moment, between intention and oblivion? That place in time.

Stop sign

These are extreme examples, and sad ones, and I’m sorry to lay them on you. But we all make these decisions, if decisions are what they are – impulses, maybe, is a better term. We sit at corners in our cars, at stop signs, and sometimes because of cars parked too close to the corner we can’t see oncoming traffic clearly, but we feel, as we edge out a bit, that we can see enough, and that it seems clear to go, and we go – and we, the lucky ones, make it. But it could have gone the other way. We took a gamble – for some reason, we thought it was worth it, or that we were invincible and nothing could happen to us, or that if suddenly a car appeared we could hit the brakes – or they could – and calamity would be avoided. A place, a decision, a time – an action. A result. We go into old buildings and walk onto floors that look like they could never hold us. There is that moment of hesitation, or calculation, or ego, or nothing – and then you step forward. And you are in that place in time, that action of no return. That steep and rocky path, with a long fall below; the electrical wires that could give off a fatal jolt; that rickety ladder you use to reach that ceiling fixture; the slippery roof on a rainy day, and you with a tool in your hand, and a cloud that looks like it could hold lightning … we go ahead and do what sense might tell us to hold off on. That place in time where the action of the present meets the fragility of the future.

Time is a place, and this is the most tenuous of locales. That reaching out with the back-of-the-mind awareness that you should keep that hand where it is. Is taking that chance a weakness of the creatures that we are, or is it what makes us human and the dominant life form on the planet? Is it those chances that are what makes a person an artist, and makes nothing into art? By that place in time, by the accumulation of all the little places in time, are we carving out our rightful place in this world, that place that comes only by confronting the chance and taking it. Sometimes you lose your fingers ; sometimes you make it out into traffic unscathed; sometimes you win the battle. Sometimes you disappear.

We have hired a neighbor to mow our lawn for us. I will not touch that power mower, no matter how careful and aware I am or sure I will be, with the memory of my uncle in my mind. I am not one for leaps of faith. I will never rule the world by taking a chance. I am resigned to knowing that I will have more fingers than others, but they will have led more vital lives losing a few of theirs, and dwelling more fully in a frighteningly alive placeness that I can’t bring myself to quite enter.

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Duke-ing It Out in New Jersey

Heading north on Route 206 in New Jersey, it is a mixed bag of visual interest. In many ways the road seems older than it is in actuality: somehow it feels quite elderly, say in American Revolutionary War age terms. But the road in its entirety is not that old (designated as Route 206 in the 1930s), although fragments of it – it is a stitched together assemblage of other roads – might be, especially around Trenton and Princeton. Overall, Route 206 slashes through New Jersey in a north-south line that almost divides the state laterally. Many sections are rural; probably for not much longer.

Route 206’s 130-some miles connect Hammonton, below the Pine Barrens, and Milford, Pa., just shy of the Delaware Water Gap. I find it significant that these two landmark areas, which are fiercely protected, tend to bookend something equally remarkable – something that is possibly equidistant from both termini.

We have travelled Route 206 fairly often, and passing through Princeton is a treat; it is so coiffed and cared for and historically fashionable. The road snakes through the town and campus, then makes its way into recently-developed, once-rural parts. Then, the two-lane highway opens up like a boa constrictor swallowing a large mammal and becomes like every other multilane highway ever conceived.

wall

But, wait, we wondered, the first time it caught our eye – what is that exquisite wall bordering the road, that anachronism of perfectly set umber river stones that seems to enclose something? What it surrounds must be something huge, because the masterfully aligned stone wall continues for miles. There are a few breaks in the wall – intentional ones with wrought-iron gates and turrets built of the same stones. What was/is that?

The next time we passed it, going in the opposite direction, I caught a glimpse of a sign – Duke Farms. Hmm. My brain started reeling; we passed a crossroad – Duke Parkway. Duke. Being a PBS watcher, I pondered the only Duke name I know – Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. I wondered.

Wall

First chance, we looked up the name. My arrow was true: It is the Duke estate, built by Doris’ father, J. B. Duke – tobacco tycoon (American Tobacco Company), early discoverer of hydroelectric (Duke Power Company) and generous benefactor to Trinity College (renamed Duke University). Doris‘ father died young, and Doris transferred her devotion to the homestead with a mostly unbuilt mansion on Route 206 – Duke Farms. Construction on the house stopped after the two-story foundation was laid, and now it is a beautiful ruin.

Doris also loved nature and she rebuilt the lavish estate as an environmental model of stewardship; her mission was to protect land, threatened species, habitats and to continue the legacy of the home she loved in a more generous way. Duke Farms is so full of placeness on every level (although it requires turning a blind eye to the tobacco roots – but, hey, America’s beauty is often built on the embarrassing underbelly of robber barons’ give-back).

Farm barnWe finally stopped to check it out. Amazing, is all I can say. Take a bazillion dollars and do something meaningful with it: arslocii. Thousands of acres of privately protected land in the midst of over-development. Go to the orientation center in the magnificent Farm Barn. I thought for sure that it was the main house, but no – this was the barn! A 22,000 square foot former horse and dairy barn, it has been greened to the max (LEED platinum) and the cafe even has vegan/vegetarian offerings. It is a kind of cathedral to environmental PC-ness. You can walk trails for 18 miles, you can ride bikes on 12 of them, there is a now-green greenhouse that looks suspiciously like the Palm House, in Kew Gardens.

If you want to see how significant this walled paradise is, look at the photograph in front of the Farm Barn that is mounted on a stand. It is an aerial view of Duke Farms with its surrounds: wall-to-wall dense housing that, at first glance, looks like cotton fields beyond the open space. Compare and contrast. Beauty and the beast.

What is also mind-boggling is that Duke Farms has been open to the public for only one year. It is, in many ways, a surprising treasure of placeness in the sometimes placeless sprawl of New Jersey lurking outside its lovely wall.

duke

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Infernal Inferno: Thermal Thoughts

fateI must have been 3 or 4 when it happened. I still have a memory of the event that seems to have imprinted on my life. My parents were away, maybe for their first trip since I was born, my grandmother was staying with us and that was great – but I was so eager to see my mom and dad.

The casement windows were higher than my sightline, so I climbed up on a chair to catch a glimpse of their impending arrival. The seat wasn’t quite enough of a boost and I raised myself to the arm, balancing on its narrow edge, and leaned over the radiator toward the now attainable view – a bird’s-eye perspective of the main entrance to our apartment building. I would be able to witness their grand return.

As the chair tipped, my face hit the sharp edge of the cast-iron radiator, blood gushed from my cheekbone. I still wear the scar as well as the memory. This was my first intimate knowledge of radiators.

As an adult and about eight years after buying our house, we decided to switch from a hot air system to hot water. We went with baseboard radiators – something I couldn’t fall on, maybe. I assisted, as much as I was able, with the installation, all the while uncertain about my choice and still harboring a strong attachment to the old cast-iron maidens; hey, we were blood brothers. Our heating contractor was chosen because of his enlightened attitudes, and this led him to hiring me later as his helper on other heating jobs. For three years, I worked on every type of heating system devised – some by geniuses, some by charlatans. There were many cast-iron radiators that we would either install or de-install. My sense was that the smarter people stayed with the old stuff.

Currently, I am in the process of changing residences. Once again, the new house will be altered from a heated-air system to hot water. And now I am caught in a personal journey into radiator hell in the Underworld of craigslist. It seems to be my destiny.

Inferno

The first circle of suffering is the one where people question your sanity about going in the opposite direction from the flow. I think we are just talking about American flow here, because in Europe (where they have been heating long before we were born), Canada and Australia – central heating still means hot water. Despite that, America is yanking out water systems like there is no tomorrow – and maybe there isn’t. But I was, miraculously somehow, able to make it out of Limbo alive and with my imperative intact. Although some may argue that this decision included the second circle, Lust, because they think that my sense of reason is impaired by going this route and pursuing radiators.

grouping

Another circle of suffering is the Dante-imagined cold slush of Gluttony; my goal is to avoid that sort of chilly hell – in my old age, especially. Hell is supposed to be plenty warm, as I intend to be with my radiant units.

Within craigslist, I relentlessly search the listings for radiators: this is where Greed, Heresy, Anger, Fraud and, potentially, Violence come into play all at once in varying amounts. You know what I’m talking about.

My quest is in progress. Possibly nine of the fourteen radiators needed have been located. If I can pull this off, it will be the best kind of placeness yet – the one that keeps me warm as climate change makes comfort more challenging, and my own circulation slows to an eventual stop. And, mostly, it will be a scaling of Purgatory, and a kind of closure to my life with radiators – scar and all.

hot radiator

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Woodstocks Nation, Part 4: New York

logoRight up front, Woodstockers will tell you that the famed rock concert didn’t happen there. Of course, this will not stop them from trying to sell you an “authentic” souvenir commemorating those three muddy, giddy, iconic and inimitable days of peace and music. And why should it? The show might have taken place in Bethel, but it got its name from the town that spawned the idea for it and lent its considerable good vibes to the proceedings – good vibes that exist there to this day, in much the same way that they did then. Manhattanites come, old folkies go, but, to an extent that is almost miraculous, Woodstock remains Woodstock. The concert happened nearly 70 miles away and 45 years ago, but the echoes reverberate still off Overlook Mountain.

village green

Come into town (we were heading in from Woodstock, Vermont, via Massachusetts), along Route 212 or down 375 (what is soon to be known officially as the Levon Helm Memorial Boulevard), take a gander at the mountain range all around, and then notice primarily what is not in the village, the central core of the town: except for a couple of national-brand pharmacies, there is no big-box store, no chain restaurant, no big-name shop – this is by design. Woodstock wants none of that, thank you. There are more Buddhist prayer flags than American flags (not that it is an unpatriotic place, it’s just that it has its priorities), and more ponytails per capita than most other towns – and that’s just on the men. Where other village greens in other towns display old cannons or heroic statuary, Woodstock, N.Y., has a Peace Pole. It also has, on warm-weather Sundays, a drum circle, complete with volunteer dancers swaying in abandon, and a bizarre Father Woodstock – dressed like a sorcerer by way of Sergeant Pepper and Doug Henning – giving peace signs to passing motorists.

peace pole

It’s the boutique-y shops, oddball businesses and natural beauty that attract weekend tourists to this oasis in the Catskills just two hours north of New York City, but what draws artists and writers and musicians to make Woodstock their home, even if they’re just weekenders, is that it is a place that, since the early 20th century, has been a gathering place for the creative of word and deed and imagination. The town calls itself the Colony of the Arts; its town crest hasn’t the usual symbols of government on it, but, rather, representations of painting, theater, music and writing.

It is a town with a laissez-faire attitude toward outsiders and art-makers – it is known as being a place where you don’t have to explain yourself or your oddities, and a place where those attributes might even be celebrated. There is even a cemetery dedicated to artists. Folks from Milton Avery to Joan Snyder, Bob Dylan to Steve Earle, The Band to Donald Fagen, Helen Hayes to Uma Thurman have all called Woodstock home at one time or another. Even David Bowie’s around there somewhere. These days, real estate is a bit pricey, and younger folks are taking their artistic baby steps in outlying smaller towns and in the nearby city of Kingston, but even they know that other places are for paying your dues – Woodstock is the reward.

joy

We began our Woodstocks wanderings with the intriguing though half-baked concept of touching base with as many towns of a similar name as possible, and seeing if there were any commonalities. There weren’t many – shared names, even if from identical origins, don’t mean that there are any other similarities. They weren’t separated at birth; they don’t have shared DNA. Woodstock, Conn. and Woodstock, N.Y., might just as well be in different countries. What they do share, though, is a sense of what they are, a solidity of values and a refuge from urban woes. They are all relatively small outposts, and they have lives beyond the shadows of behemoth cities. They all have nice people. Maybe what they share is a kind of goodness, a spot of safety and the sense that if all the rest of the world starts slipping down that drain with a loud sucking sound, they will not be going that way, or if they are, they will be last.

What we came to realize, too, on our road-trip journey was that next time we will try a different theme: Paris, Texas, sounds good as a starting point to get us to that other Paris; or maybe Athens, Georgia, with that Greek namesake as the endpoint; there’s also Rome, N.Y. and Berlin, N.J., and we could stretch things and go to Notre Dame in Indiana, or Venice Beach in California, and find our way to those foreign places that come to mind. Finding our Woodstocks was grand, but there’s a whole, other, places-with-similar-names world out there. And, of course, there’s still Woodstock, Ga., and Woodstock, Ontario, and …

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Woodstocks Nation, Part 3: Vermont

welcomeHere’s a free-association test: Say “Woodstock,” and people with money will reply “Vermont,” while those with ‘60s cred will point to the music fest in New York. Of the Woodstocks we’ve visited so far on our thematic trek – first in Connecticut, then New Hampshire – Woodstock, Vermont, is the one that sits at the grownups’ table.

street

The village was invented, it seems, so that the word “picturesque” would have something to refer to, and it is so formally self-aware of this and of its tourist-attracting saleable past that it has a historical marker with so much written on it, it has to continue on the back side. It is the village of a mere 900 or so residents that we speak of here; it sits within the town of Woodstock, which contains about four times that population and a South Woodstock, too.

sign

As we drive into the village core, park and walk around, in the summer sun (although ski season is among its chief raisons d’etre), the place seems to be gleaming white (in more ways than one), with spotless sidewalks, many old and idiosyncratic storefronts, pretty picket-fenced houses, a stately and gorgeous (inside and out) public library … god, there’s even a covered bridge, and a big village green where, when we visited, a huge annual book sale was in full swing. Wholesome values, in aspic.

green

You want New England, this place is perfectly lousy with it. And that’s the drawback, as we see it, from a placeness, arslocii perspective – it is too perfect, and, though a creature of centuries of urban evolution, seemingly too much a creation of intelligent design. Some of that has to do, we’re sure, with the nature of tourist allure – presenting visitors with what they expect to see – and some of it with Disney-ish Main Street-ification. At times, we thought that the only things missing were crowd-mingling reenactors dressed as Paul Revere and an easel-toting Norman Rockwell.

house

There is money here, and much of it came from Rockefeller wallets, and while that family has made startlingly wonderful efforts to preserve art and land, their participation often leans to the development of a more studied, more fashioned, more cleaned-up/dressed-up artificiality – a shaping more than a tending, and a slight soullessness in its immaculate artistry. The feel of that stewardship circulates down Woodstock’s quaint streets and byways.

Don’t get us wrong: It is an attractive village with surprising amenities and photo-worthy views, and, if you find yourself in the neighborhood you owe yourself a stroll. But, when you are there, thereness might not be your walking companion.

bridge

Next time: Woodstock, New York

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Woodstocks Nation, Part 2: New Hampshire

crossroadsIf you can swing it, come in from the north. Shooting down the highway, eye-opening mountains and “notches” rising on either side, angry and dark clouds massed above and ahead as if ready to pounce or knock you into nonexistence with a nonchalant flick of a paw – you then quickly exit the fast road and empty into the small, slow town.

As with our last stop on this thematic tour – Connecticut’s Woodstock – were it not for the signs informing you that you were someplace special, you would not know you were anyplace in particular. For us, placeness is a compelling concept, and the search for and luxuriating in locations that exude it are part of our life’s work, so to be here was to experience a sensation as if standing out in a field while holding a Geiger counter and not picking up a single click.

plow

This Woodstock is a traveler’s draw, a crossroads, a spot for White Mountains tourists to stay a night or two, and/or find a place to eat familiar food on the way between here and there, in the center of beauty if not beautiful itself. Being that there are only a little over a thousand permanent residents spread over nearly 60 square miles, the tourists in season easily outnumber the locals, but the locals, who operate b&bs and run or work in the restaurants and shops, are happy to be overrun. It is not, however, really Woodstock that is the center of activity, but rather the contiguous North Woodstock, which, confusingly, suddenly changes into Lincoln before you can apply the brakes. There are lovely and old parts of the town – is it Woodstock? North Woodstock? – like the Soldiers Park, with its memorials to the area’s fallen in various wars, and longstanding classic-form churches, even the huge snowplow with the town’s name on it that serves as the welcome sign, all informing us of the centuries’-old American values of the place: what was important, what was held dear, what constitute the acknowledged and accepted cycles of life. These are the spots in town, few and far between now, that feel most like the classic New England village, that resonate with, if not placeness, then certainly a heartfelt and long-held identity. But it is up the road a piece where most of the visitors are, where things widen out, parking lots spread from the expanding road, boxy commercial buildings have opened up shop, where a once vital train line is now a short-haul theme restaurant, and a new kind of American value is honored.

park

Oh, and there are, along this stretch, tours that guarantee, for a price, that you will see a moose. Given that moose are notoriously shy creatures, and that they tend to stand in the leafy groves beside roadways, in the shadows, it seems peculiar that a jaunt to see them would, first, take place at an evening hour when all is dark and, second, that there could be a guarantee. When we ask an employee of the company how they can be so certain that moose will be spied, that person replies that the little vehicles with paying customers inside go toodling off to where they know moose often can be found and then throw high-intensity spotlight beams into the forest, catching a poor moose unawares and scaring the bejesus out of it. Had much of their habitat not been cleared away and paved over, moose would be all over the place, and you’d need a bus to go somewhere where you could not see them. (As it happened, we missed the tour, saved our money, and the next day, as we made our way to the next state and the next Woodstock, we saw a moose by the side of the road, staring at it as it looked, disinterested, back at us, and not one watt of artificial light was required for this meeting of the minds. The joy of seeing it was greater because serendipity was involved. Sometimes the old ways of doing things are best.

town

Next stop: Woodstock, Vermont.

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