Sunday, December 20, 2009

Repurpose the Architect

A seasonal grab bag this time, three bits of content: an interview, a second group of glossary entries, and photos from Flint.

First, the "Repurpose the Architect" interview with me, conducted by Bolu Olorunda, a student at Ball State University, on November 13, 2009.


Second, five more additions to the glossary I am assembling (which I began in the "Leftover Rightunder" post of July 4, 2009 with the terms gacaca, getting baptized, rightsizing, urban prairie, and walking point):

flash fiction ... "fiction of extreme brevity. There is no widely accepted definition of the length of the category. Some self-described markets for flash fiction impose caps as low as 300, while others consider stories as long as 1000 words to be flash fiction... Other names for flash fiction include sudden fiction, microfiction, micro-story, postcard fiction, prosetry and short short story, though the distinctions are sometimes drawn between some of these terms; for example, sometimes 1,000 words is considered the cut-off between 'flash fiction' and the slightly longer 'sudden fiction.'" [from Wikipedia]

rapport-talk ... "Phil Donahue may have pioneered the daytime TV format, but Ms. [Oprah] Winfrey transformed it from report-talk focused on information to rapport-talk - the telling of secrets and personal troubles that drives many women's friendships." [from Deborah Tannen, "Donahue Talked, Oprah Listened," New York Times, November 29, 2009.]

reality twittering ... "In April, [Mark Horvath] took a major risk that became a turning point for his cause. He spent his last $300 on a trip to Sacramento to interview homeless people in the tent communities that had spring up there as a result of the recession. 'I thought nobody was telling their story, and I needed to go there,' he said. 'I left [Los Angeles] knowing that I could be evicted.' Horvath roamed the homeless tent cities, documenting the experience on his Twitter stream, @HardlyNormal. He also used Whrrl, a Web and mobile application that lets users share stories via brief updates, photos and location. 'I call it reality twittering,' Horvath explained. 'I try to engage people and bring them along for the ride'" [from Valerie Streit, "Activist's Web site, tweets put new face on homelessness," CNN Tech, December 1, 2009.]

see-food ... "I like See-food. I see food, I eat it." [Lawless Watson, "Vendor Profile," Washington D.C.'s Street Sense - where the poor and homeless earn and give their two cents," September 16-29, 2009.]

soft coup ... "In August, after the suppression of Iran's pro-democracy protests, officials in Tehran accused Western governments of using online social networks like Twitter and Facebook to help execute a 'soft coup.' The accusation wasn't entirely off-base. In Iran and elsewhere, this year showed the growing importance of social networks to U.S. foreign policy." ["Social Networks as Foreign Policy," New York Times Magazine, December 13, 2009.]


Finally, photographs taken in Flint, Michigan on December 16, 2009 of three consecutive abandoned and boarded houses (two of them burned out) at (from left) 706, 702, and 628 East Third Street. For more, see "Flint, Michigan collection" at the site.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Taking Orders

Washington DC, Massachusetts Avenue. An owner and a building that resist.

I was in Washington DC last week, five days, twenty-four architecture students, one colleague, seeing some sights.

And taking orders.

A man running towards me, plainclothes, across the lawn, got my attention. An off-duty security guard flashing ID, as I stood on a public sidewalk and photographed the control booth for the underground parking ramp at the U.S. Court of Appeals.



Questions, repeated. My identity / my rights challenged. Who are you again? Where are you from?

Taking orders. Bossed around. Under surveillance. Told what to do.

Five days.

I watched two German tourists stuff their mouths with handmade sandwiches. They'd been told food couldn't be brought into the U.S. Capitol. Then being told to leave their Tupperware container outside. That wasn't allowed either.

Dangerous burps?

Watching my students go unquestioning through these "exercises" -- their willingness to take orders -- became something I gave some attention while walking in our nation's capital.

At the Newseum:
No film or flash photography allowed in the theater!
Please put your cameras away.

At the Visitors Center at the U.S. Capitol:
Keep the door closed!
Keep the door closed!
Wait on the other side of the door please!
Please keep the door closed!

At Arlington National Cemetery:
This side please!

At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a sign (I argue, intended to make crowd control easier and mowing the lawn more convenient, as it is at odds with the vision of architect Maya Lin):
Honor Those Who Served
Please Stay On Sidewalk

At the Supreme Court:
Keep your voices down.
Voices down folks.
This is a working office building.

A Greenpeace worker to my colleague:
Hey! Fellow environmentalist!

Maybe these directions, partial rants, oral tweets are intended to safeguard. Maybe each is a conversation, an exchange, a dialogue, sort of. Maybe we're terrible at taking directions, we're all on one big ADD buzz, we've lost our way. Maybe it's okay to be watched continuously, and to be informed on and informants 24/7/52 /365/4ever.

Arlington National Cemetery, the gravesites of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and two of their children. Under constant surveillance.

National Building Museum. The Solar Decathlon entry created by students and faculty from Virginia Tech. Everything under control?

Newseum. 9/11 Gallery includes a section of the Communications Tower that sat atop the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

Supreme Court. Men's restroom. Roberts, Thomas, Scalia?

Union Station. A streetperson talks.

A streetperson at Union Station:
They might have apologized to someone else.
But nobody's apologized to me...
And now my two sons, one's got one baby and the other's got two...
What they gonna sell for another hit?

This man, for me, someone to listen to, his a story and history worth knowing, beyond the marble and limestone and guards and false courtesies and blind allegiances, maybe this man has stories to tell that deserve our attention. Maybe he wants to talk, is hungry for, among other things, dialogue.

My mistake this time: I listened, took notes, but didn't engage.

Too used to taking orders, I forgot to take initiative.

It's a mistake I won't make again.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Prefab Indiana

Prefabricated houses roll south, 70 miles per hour, on I-69. I daydream north, 13+ years, 70 miles per hour, I-69 between my Indianapolis home near Exit 0 and Exit 41 and work at Ball State University.
The prefabs are sourced in northern Indiana, in places like Elkhart--the "RV Capital of the World"--where one manufacturer, Skyline, built 890,000 houses since 1951. The city of Middlebury is there too, and so are places with fun names: Goshen, Wakarusa, Nappanee, Shipshewana.

History: cheap gas + good roads + discretionary income + easy credit + white flight =ed boom times in prefab sales. Recent history: candidate Obama came for street cred with working class. Today in Elkhart: the nation's highest unemployment at 15.3%, msnbc's The Elkhart Project "to provide perspective on the national recession," and POTUS returns.

Tags: economicimplosion, nojobs, Mexicandrugcartels, Amishworkforce, thatgreatsuckingsoundyouhear.

About the photos. Inspired by Chris Jones' "St Ives by chance" and John Cage's 4'33". A house approaches, camera up, viewfinder look, shutter push, then gone. Three seconds. Converging high speeds, closeness, and one-eye-on-prefab-one-eye-on-traffic bring blurs and out-of-frame experiences. Houses are backgrounded as overpasses, yellow lines, asphalt, guardrails, vehicles, dirty windshield, weather, changing seasonal landscapes, signage, and traffic accidents come into view. January to July 2009.

For more prefabricated houses rolling in Indiana, see this set: 69 preBUILTS.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Phoenix Burning

Phoenix was like this for me, mid-August 2009.


But there's lots of hot in Phoenix in summer. Heat is a big category.

The house of a good friend, Jerome, is not so hot. Purchased for $280K two years ago, now appraised at $140K. My buddy has an upside-down mortgage.

Across the street, a house vacant, then occupied, and days later, a sign offering to do car repairs curbside. Vacant houses everywhere. At the main intersection into the neighborhood, some bushes where several men lived for a few weeks this summer.

Not exactly the "hot" real estate market realtors talk-up, but there's interesting ideas about occupation and territory and ownership being worked out.

People use shopping carts to i-haul groceries, leave carts setting out, entrepreneurs with flatbed trucks retrieve carts, probably sell them back to the retail establishments.

Deep informality courses through this very formal place. People find cracks to claim, to make their own and their way.

The Lux coffee shop, a hangout for designers and architects. In the recent past, not too crowded, everybody with jobs. Now full, overflowing, overbrewed. For the price of a coffee free internet. A friend tells me it's a great place to network. Another friend says it's a bunch of unemployed people networking with other unemployed people. It's not-working as net-working.

The Chateaux on Central Complex. The corner of Central Avenue and Palm Lane. If you google it, you'll find the website is shut down. According to Phoenix-based realtor

"Chateaux on Central is a 21 unit, gated, brownstone style, luxury single family home community reminiscent of high end areas in Boston, or Chicago, or New York. Chateaux are all brick and masonry with turn of the 20th Century style. Each is four stories tall with a basement and 2 private underground parking spaces. Each brownstone comes with its own private elevator, dining terrace, roof top terrace, and optional fireplace, private pool, spa, BBQ, and more. Sizes range from 5,100 to over 8,200 livable square feet..."

So we went there and it's not just the website that's closed, the work site is five levels of vacancy and abandonment. Very unhot. Prices in the $2 million to $4 million range. None sold. Work stopped, just short of completion. Indications that workers were told to leave immediately -- STOP setting those pavers! STOP installing doors! STOP WHATEVER YOU'RE DOING AND GET OFF THE JOBSITE NOW!!! (One imagines.)

Just one example: indications (rust!) that the wrought iron fences and gates were brought to the job site without a final coat of shop paint, so there's rusting in places, at weld joints, with the fences and gates sickly affixed to brick columns with very cheap hardware, chains and padlocks replace any sort of proper fitting and security. The crummiest of installations.

Famous now, featured in the July 5, 2009 New York Times Magazine, "Ruins of the Second Gilded Age: What the Real Estate Boom Has Left Behind," as written by Charles Wilson and photographed by Edgar Martins:

". . . early 2007, city's high-end condo market oversaturated, prices started to fall, the developer Central PHX Partners declared bankruptcy. A local commercial lender, Mortgages Ltd stepped in that year with an offer to provide nearly $50 million in loans to help Central PHX complete construction. Deal soured, in March 2008 the developer sued Mortgages, claiming the lender had not made promised payments. On June 2, 2008, the CEO of Mortgages, Scott Coles [48], committed suicide. At the time, one-third of his company's loans were in default. Remains unoccupied and unfinished."

We drive southeast, to Chandler. There, a concrete HULK stopped, vacated, defiant, alone.

I'm aware of the Sun. Hide in the shadows.

West of Phoenix, a massive office park in Avondale, just a suntan lotion drop of small tenants. Otherwise nothing, no life, nothing. The Sun.

Massive new residential areas. It's difficult to know how many are occupied. It's 105 degrees, plus/minus heat stroke and dehydration, so why be outside, and mid-afternoon on a Thursday and Friday, but still, dead still, no children's toys, no wear-and-tear on playground equipment, only a few garbage cans.

How do you tell, in such a place, if anyone is around when no one is around?

We find a couple of houses, new, never occupied. Front, back, and side doors open, dust and sand everywhere, with full kitchen cabinets, even a new electrical breaker box on the outside.

It's odd, Phoenix. People out of work, needing money, and here, unlike in many other distressed neighborhoods I've visited in the Rust Belt, no one is scavenging or scrapping out these houses.

In another neighborhood, which appears to have significant vacancy, at least six houses under construction, crews working, materials delivered, there's nothing going on except building out a contract. I guess.

It appears that there is a larger turnaround underway. First-time house buyers are getting good deals and the market is heating up, a little, again. At least this is what one reads on-line, maybe at The Lux, but the quietness and emptiness and hollowness on the ground, along with the pristine quality of the abandonment, causes me to marvel at the contradictions and complexities and how it all plays out, at the moment, in lives.

Jerome's story is of a contemporary squatter in the desert. Modern Man. It's likely that he and his wife will stop making payments on their upside-down house and it's their best guess that it will take at least six months for the holders of the mortgage to figure out that they're not paying--processors are overwhelmed with such decisions and ramifications. A bankruptcy lawyer told him of a client who stopped paying a $3000/month mortgage 2.5 years ago, and still hasn't been found out.

I have no estimate of the numb-er of persons who are involved in or will be taking such an approach. Obviously, one bankruptcy lawyer, working out of her dining room for $200 an hour, hasn't figured out something that a lot of others haven't figured out, anticipated, planned for, and participated in.

I like that Jerome was about to leave town, had just returned from another major city to look for a job and a neighborhood. And by stopping mortgage payments, he'll stay in Phoenix, his talent and energy stay in Phoenix. And somebody stays in the house, doing minimal maintenance, but maintaining nonetheless.

And I like that Jerome, his wife, their bankruptcy lawyer, and most of their friends have complicated and enlarged the "squatter" category for me, along with the "abandoned house" category.

Jerome is like and unlike the squatter Keith Austin who I met in Flint, Michigan several years ago. Like, in that neither is paying for housing, both are unemployed, both are downsizing, both maintain their places of occupation, both talk openly of their situation, both live in falling cities (one Rust Belt, one Sun Belt). Unlike, in how each is watched--Jerome maybe is watched by his overwhelmed bank, but certainly not the police or his neighbors, while Keith has no mortgage, but is watched by citizens, neighbors, and others who want no part of an obvious squatter in their neighborhood. Unlike, in that I have no idea where Keith is now, and I can reach Jerome through several emails and telephones.

Unlike Keith, who I spoke to once for twenty minutes, I've known Jerome for fifteen years. He's a great friend, former student of mine, and design collaborator. We've traveled the world together, won design awards together, share a lot of very good friends.

And tonight, Jerome is in Phoenix, squatting.

for more photographs from Phoenix see:

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Contradicting Flint

Top: a partial deconstruction at the GM Flint Buick Motor Division plant. Bottom: Olon Dotson, Associate Professor of Architecture, Ball State University, and Jeff Burdick, Neighborhood Planner at the Genesee County Land Bank, visit a "hoop house" greenhouse in a Flint residential neighborhood. For more images of Flint, see the website.

Last week I made my 14th visit to Flint, Michigan. While comfortable among distress and interested in small local initiatives, after this trip I'm seeing some contradictions.

These inconsistencies are informed, courtesy of my colleague Olon Dotson, by song lyrics recorded by The Ohio Players and sung by Leroy "Sugarfoot" Bonner. With "Contradictions," Sugarfoot sets out to reveal his world, influencing and influenced by:

my convictions . . .
my restrictions . . .
my intentions . . .

contributions . . . the solutions . . . a revelation . . .
your constitutions . . . retribution . . . illusion . . .

confusion . . . institution . . .
diffusion . . . dilution . . .


In Sugarfoot's mix, each response or action or feeling informs as it complicates, each is unique and reliant on others, each explanation both helps and hinders.

Top: a mattress in a back bedroom of an abandoned house on 4th Avenue between Stone and Begole Streets suggests the presence of a squatter. Bottom: In east Flint, which is probably the city's most distressed neighborhood, Olon talks with Billy, a local man and houseowner. Note the yard sign: "All Gave Some. Some Gave All." Additional images of the abandoned house can be seen at this site.

Flint, today, has its own contradictions:

Outdoor dining downtown--is this an illusion


an estimate of 20,000 abandoned structures--a revelation


opening of UM-Flint's first on-campus housing--a contribution


widespread abandonment and open lots of east Flint--a dilution


remodeling of the Durant Hotel into downtown apartment living--an institution


the 51st, and last, Buick Open golf tournament (won by Tiger Woods)--a further blow to Flint's constitution


my windshield survey: more urban gardens now than in years past--highlighting convictions


the 235-acre Buick City site is the largest brownfield in the U.S.--overrun with restrictions


an August election that seated a new mayor--part of the solution


8-10 structure fires every week--are these contributions?

"Contradicting Flint" has a larger sense about it . . . that inconsistencies do exist, side-by-side, simultaneously, are of the same whole cloth of a living, vibrant city. There is no doubt, Flint continues to fall. And there is the possibility that Flint, in conventional terms (restaurants downtown, new mayor, refurbished grand buildings) is "rebounding," is "coming back," is a "city to watch," as we're tempted to say about such indicators.

Top: thousands of houses are self-deconstructing, this one in the Carriage Town Historic District, at 4th & Stone. Bottom: across the street, a house tended, lovingly, by Adam, who I wrote about in "First Name Basis (Part 1)."

Still, in Youngstown, Ohio a year ago, a city with its own distressing story: at one time it was the third largest steel-producing city in the world, now it's best known for leading in efforts to "shrink" the city. With Olon, Nihal Perera, and architecture and planning students, a conversation with Hunter Morrison, Director of Campus Planning at Youngstown State University.

Among Morrison's observations: when considering cities we should think in "long wave patterns" and fifty-year increments. Morrison added that mining towns which fed the Rust Belt went under first. The refineries of that rough stuff and their cities (Youngstown, Pittsburgh, Braddock, Gary) went next. And now the steel-bending towns and states are in free fall. Detroit and Flint, Michigan. Anderson and Muncie, Indiana.

That said, Flint's story might be, will be a hybrid. It has universities (UM-Flint, Kettering, Mott Community College) and hospitals (Hurley, McLaren, Mott Children's, Genesee Cancer & Blood Disease, among them)--what Morrison termed "eds and meds," which provide a base that is unlikely to go away. Local philanthropies--the Charles Stewart Mott and the Ruth Mott Foundations--offer continuous, critical support. And the people of the Genesee County Land Bank are trying their best to stand tall in an avalanche of foreclosures, abandonments, emergencies, and more.

And, I suggest, individuals who are not doctors or bank presidents or university professors or foundation secretaries will have their say, do have important roles to play in Flint's future. Like Billy in east Flint welcoming persons-in-need into his house, Adam in Carriage Town who holds down his part of the historic district, the squatter Keith making his way, the police officer/poet/photographer Brian comforting a victim of violent crime or refereeing a youth basketball game, and Julie at the Brown Sugar Cafe, getting people going in the downtown. In their own ways and for their own reasons, these persons and their actions will matter.

If we apply Morrison's timeline, maybe another 25 years of hard fall remain for the people of Flint. Or maybe the city is going to be a place that does pull out of its decline.

Most likely, it will fit somewhere in-between, as Sugarfoot suggests, contradicting our predictions and our visions while contradicting our optimisms and pessimisms.