Tag Archives: chicago

Henry Fuller’s Chicago: The Monadnock

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

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

Welcome to 1890s Chicago:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I do love Chicago.

A part of me does love that building.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago 1940-1960

327385Arnold R. Hirsch (1983) University of Chicago Press

For me the key insight is that this spatial arrangement we know as the ghetto is not static or unchanging or some historical holdover that we can’t quite seem to get rid of. Instead, ‘the contemporary ghetto appeared a dynamic institution that was continually being renewed, reinforced, and reshaped’ (xii). It’s forces now as well as the past we need to be analyzing.

He writes up front:

primary attention is devoted to whites. That is where the power was. This is not to say that blacks have simply ‘reacted’ to the actions of others and do not ‘act’ in their own behalf. But what we are looking at here is the construction of the ball park within which the urban game is played. And there is no question that the architects, in this instance, were whites’ (xii)

Of all the books I’ve read, this is the most explicit about class differences and the different costs of policy and geography to whites in Chicago, also the most sympathetic to working class rioters. He certainly does show that ‘white hostility was of paramount importance in shaping the pattern of black settlement’ (9).

It was the sheer presence of the first ghetto and the white reaction to it, though, that did the most to produce the second. In creating it, white Chicago conceived a “Frankenstein’s monster,” which threatened to “run amok” after World War II. The establishment of racial borders, their traditional acceptance, and the conditions spawned by unyielding segregation created an entity that whites feared and loathed. Those who made it were soon threatened by it, and, desperately, they both employed old techniques and devised new ones in the attempt to control it. Others elected to flee to the suburbs, thus compounding the difficulties of those left behind. In any event, the very process of racial succession, dormant for nearly a generation, inspired both the dread and the action that called forth the second ghetto (15-16)

Oh, white people and their imaginations sparked by their racist ways. There is so much to be unpacked in this paragraph, but I’m saving that for later.

Another key idea:

The forces promoting a durable and unchanging racial border–the dual housing market, the cost of black housing, restrictive covenants–were, at first, buttressed by teh hosing shortage. Once new construction began, however, those same forces became an overwhelmingly powerful engine for change(29).

Of these forces, restrictive covenants were possibly the least effective, he notes they are only ‘a fairly coarse sieve, unable to stop the population when put to the test.’ (30)

He notes the ‘imagined “status” differences that were impervious to the bleaching power of money’ (35), the fears of losing the ‘life and death’ struggle for housing. He also notes the shift from open racism in the struggle to protect neighbourhoods to the use of planning jargon and the language and tools of redevelopment. Another key insight is into the nature of Chicago’s ‘hidden violence’, kept quiet by media and ‘conscious city policy’ (42) to try and dampen the possibilities of even more extended racial violence like that erupting in 1919 and 1943 when many lives were lost at the hands of white mobs. In fact white mobs were able to form at will to ‘protect’ their turf, and these collections of ‘Friends, neighbors, and rioters’ were horrific. They are fairly well documented as well, a large proportion of working-class immigrants coming together (German, Irish, Slavs, Poles), a large proportion of Catholics, almost all from the neighborhood under threat (no outsiders here stirring things up…).

They are in contrast with the equally racist but more liberal sounding community near the University of Chicago, and the startling role of the University itself in consciously protecting neighboring areas for whites. Actually, what I find startling is not that they had that policy, but how much is solidly documented in how their expansion from 7 to 110 acres was to stop African-Americans from ‘encroaching’. But they were certainly masters of manupulating city agencies and urban renewal to protect their interests, often at the cost of tearing down good housing and displacing working class white communities (which they viewed as liabilities given their vulnerability to ‘inflitration’) as well as black communities. Chancellor Hutchins of the University wrote the following poem:

The Chancellor and the President gazed out across the park,
They laughed like anything to see that things were looking dark.
“Our neighborhood,” the Chancellor said, “once blossomed like the lily.”
“Just seven coons with seven kids could knock our program silly.”
“Forget it,” said the President, “and thank the Lord for Willie.”

Just as telling:

Nothing would have shocked Hype Parkers more than the assertion that they were part of a generalized “white” effort to control the process of racial succession in Chicago. The imputation of brotherhood with the ethnic, working-class rock throwers would have been more than they could bear. Yet, there was just such a consensus (171)….

Chicago’s whites found themselves engaged in a desperately competitive struggle with each other. The successful “defense” of one neighborhood increased the problems of the others (172).

What troubled me most about the framing was some of the evaluation of strategy. Hirsch writes:

The ethnics’ defensive yet militant espousal of their “whiteness,” however, and the demand for privilege on that basis, was a flawed defense in the context of post-World War II race relations’ (197)

The use of the word ‘ethnics’ causes me a twinge (as natives does later on in reference to whites), but something about the idea that submerging themselves into the white identity caused immigrants to lose out on gaining from minority status is worse. Hirsch does note that this also downplays the differences between national and racial differences in US history and forms of oppression. But then he continues:

Second, the immigrants and their children displayed the poor judgment of becoming militantly white at the precise moment prerogatives of color were coming into question. If they were successful in finally lining their identity to that of the natives, they were left not simply with the natives’ privileges of rank but also with the bill for past wrongs that the “whites” were now expected to pay’ (198).

This simply feeds into a neoconservative line that these ‘bills’ have been paid when they have never ever been properly faced in this country, much less paid. Sure working class whites have benefitted less and been screwed over plenty of times, but they have still benefitted, and inequalities in wealth between them and all peoples of color continues to grow.

Back finally to the formation of the ‘Second Ghetto’. The one that emerged after downtown interests and other powerful institutions like the University of Chicago anchored in the center city under threat ‘realized that the power of the state — not as it then existed but in greatly augmented form — would have to be enlited in their aid’ (213). The working class whites defending their neighborhoods never managed to wield this kind of power, but violence did prove ‘effective’ in many neighborhoods (far more than those who simply relied on covenants), did influence public policy, and certainly impacted the Chicago Housing Authority so that it institutionalized segregation as policy — particularly in projects where whites were willing to fight violently against integration. These new pressures — planning, redevelopment and public housing policy — combined to make segregation more a result of government policy than private activity. It was so entrenched, when the federal court ordered further public housing to be fully integrated in 1969, Chicago just stopped building new housing.

Chicago’s redevelopment policies — developed primarily to benefit the University of Chicago and other downtown interests, then became models for the nation. But this story is a familiar one to anyone who knows Detroit, St Louis, L.A., probably any city in the whole damn country.


Odilon Redon, Honore Daumier and assorted monsters

Odilon Redon…I saw him for the first time (that I remember) today at the Chicago Institute of Art, and found him extraordinary. Born in France in 1840, he created these beautiful works in black and white, charcoal and lithograph, strange combinations of human and plant, animal, and insect. This is the one I found


This was called Chimera…and more, but I didn’t write it down and the light was terrible, the images blurry. Redon kept to himself, remaining almost unrecognized until the end of his life although he heavily influenced surrealism. He only became generally known after being mentioned in a cult novel by Joris-Karl Huysmans, Against Nature. Which sounded intriguing, but I believe I have read enough novels of decadence for the moment, it might have inspired Oscar Wilde but was influenced by Schopenhauer and he certainly isn’t one of my favourite philosophers.  So. Another image from google because I love these…


Tree man. Additional information is slim, he’s one of those artists to learn more of…as is Honore Daumier. There are a couple of brilliant little satirical sketches and this truly amazing collection of  miniature sculptures

They capture the spirit of the individual with a delightful intensity and quickness, it must have been even more impressive in his own day knowing the politicians and public figures so captured. My favourite:

As far as big names go, there are plenty of my favourites here, and a whole room of Toulouse-Lautrec! But today I most enjoyed the hidden, the weird, and the wonderful…no flash allowed so my apologies for quality

Who knew Delacroix had ever drawn anything like this? It’s called Marguerite’s Ghost


They had one print by Durer, who fills religious paintings with the most fantastic creatures

And this sculpture by Jean-Joseph Carrie

Frog Man. I have never seen anything like it. And this shield from an assorted saint facing the devil

And time with my family, a great day.


Thoughts on the Chicago Skyline

Downtown Chicago is all planes and angles, contrasts in brick and stone, glass and steel. It is full of amazing reflections in glass.

You see it at one level from the street, and another entirely from the El train, and from both it is visually spectacular. Your fingers itch for your camera, every step brings a shift in the lines, and changes the seen and the unseen.

I had half a day on Monday after a morning meeting, so I thought I’d do the Architectural Boat Tour, 90 minutes along the river and almost all the pictures a lustful heart could ask for…as the river goes round the loop and not through it.

But I confess my extreme love for these great buildings piled one on top of the other sits miserably with my love of social and environmental justice. They are contradictions impossible to overcome. I wonder if perhaps I love them (and hate them) for their colossal and unbelievable arrogance, because it is combined with such extraordinary technical and engineering skill. I love the fact that we have figured out how to build such things, hurling metal and glass up to the sky. I suppose we never stopped to ask whether we should. And the wealth required to build such buildings…where does it come from? Chicago is as much a city of immense poverty as it is a city of beauty. And that is where you find the answer. My question is whether we could build such things without exploitation, and in a way that sits happily on the earth.

On the tour, the guide was full of information on architectural styles and the men who created them, the requirements of building something like the Sears tower, the Trump tower, and towers x, y, and z. Everything was entirely divorced from the city or the people who live in it with the exception of a single architect, Bertrand Goldberg. He designed Marina City, which I love.

I have always loved round buildings. But the guide explained that he also tried to design buildings to create community, to encourage contact between neighbors, to provide immediate access to life’s amenities. Another of his buildings is River City

These buildings are all mixed use, with stores, child care, and access to a marina beneath. The balconies  are close together to bring neighbors together. They have beautiful public spaces. He believed density was a good thing, for community, for creativity, for life.

And so I looked him up. And I’m not sure what I think of him, I certainly disagree with much of what he says, but he makes me think. He wrote this of Marina City:

More importantly, in the Marina City forms. I made it possible for people to participate in community formation. Both in the use of space and in the form of space I discovered that behavior can be influenced by the shape of space. The faceless anonymity of the corporate box which we had used for the buildings for our government, our health, our education, our business and our living, I discovered could be replaced more effectively by a new development of architectural structure and forms that supported its use by people. We could have both architecture and humanism just as we had begun to do 200 years before in the social revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries.

I love this recognition of the influence of space on the individual and community, and the revolutionary idea that architecture should be for the people and how they will live within it. That it affects how our society lives and grows. He’s not the only one of course, but one of the few. Yet it is a typical liberalism, looking backward to some better time, and only as worthy as it can be without questioning a terribly unjust world. He wrote another speech that offers an interesting reflection on the thoughts above called Rich is Right…exposing all of the contradictions involved in his thinking.

America is rich, America is right. Architects have always worked for the rich. We are now also working for the right.

Ah, if only that were true. Are the rich ever right? I don’t really think so. Our homeless population and slum housing certainly proves otherwise. But it is true that architects have always worked for the rich. I do like such frank admissions. But that leads to the conclusion that the 90% of Americans who are not rich just have to hope that those 10% of quixotic and self-absorbed rich people at some point get it right, no? That seems to require a lot of faith that history has never ever justified.

He goes on, extraordinarily enough, to quote Albert Speer, architect of Hitler. I read Speer’s autobiography some years ago and found it fascinating. He did not just build buildings, he created drama and spectacle, he cemented the image of ultimate power in the minds of the observer. Whenever you see Hitler speaking on a stage with the colossal architecture, the huge backdrops of red banners and striking black swastikas, the eagles, the torches… Speer designed all of that.

Albert Speer- Hitler’s state architect said: “We must learn to master technology and its potential by political means.” In contrast, modern architects of the 19th century all saw architecture as a reform mechanism for politics: that is, for helping solve social problems rooted in urban life and community needs, and for devising improved ways for people to work and learn and grow together.

It seems to me that my Chicago  boat tour proved Speer’s point, that architecture reflects the landscape of political power, and it has been mastered by the Trumps of the world. It is a skyline of corporations, not of government, ideals, or community spaces. Bertrand was alone there in thinking about these things, his buildings stand out because of it.

The tour takes you down the river again almost to the mouth of Lake Michigan. On your left is an urban renewal area. The words urban renewal hurt my soul, always. They usually mean the wholesale clearance of earlier communities, older buildings, of people of color and immigrants and all those who did not master power, who lived lives of poverty and hard work. My people. Urban renewal has been translated into a coastline full of high rise condos. On your right is another urban renewal area. It is also full of high rise condos. You can see down the coastline, more and more and more high rise condos. I didn’t particularly care to hear about the architects.

And they are busy building luxury residences for people who don’t exist. Home sales in Chicago’s metropolitan area are down 27.5% from April 2008, and unemployment is up to 10.1% according to the Illinois Association of Realtors. And they have somehow decided that these condos count as affordable housing and are asking for help:

David Hanna, president of the Chicago Association of REALTORS®. “The city of Chicago condominium sales numbers continue to reflect a critical need for governmental agencies to review the growing disparity in the ability to finance a condominium purchase in the city. This affordable housing will become unaffordable and unattainable to many qualified first-time homebuyers in the city of Chicago unless existing federal guidelines, which do not take into account nuances of the local market, are modified.”

If they did build affordable condos, I’m sure they wouldn’t be having quite so much trouble…I like to imagine what our cities would look like if they were built for all of the city’s people. Because, I do agree with this final quote from Bertrand Goldberg:

Are cities in our blood?

Are cities the natural forms of shelter which men build for themselves? Like the spider his web, or the oyster his shell? The answer to this is uncertain, but I believe it to be – yea.

I love the city.


SF and Politics at Think Galactic

It was my first time at Think Galactic. And I must admit, it was my first time at any SF con. And I must further admit that it was my first time really talking about the convergence of science fiction and politics in any real and sustained way. And my final admission is that the combination of these factors resulted in me actually talking very little (or at all) in the panels and discussions, though I certainly talked up a storm in smaller venues, between panels, over lunch and dinner and beers. I realized there is so much I haven’t read and need to read, so much I’ve only vaguely thought about, but never sharpened into real coherency by translating it into the concreteness of actual words.

And it was brilliant, of course.

I don’t think I’ve ever actually been in a room where everyone seems to have read and loved Octavia Butler and Ursula Le Guin. Where radical politics are related back to zombie wars and the struggle for life on Mars. I think I’ve been wanting a room like that for some time without consciously realizing it, much less looking for it. My own great loss. There are two things I love about…what should I even call it? Speculative fiction is the term  I think. I admit I have a wee bit more love for fantasy over straight sci fi, though I think much of the distinction between the two rather absurd. Still, I love those splendidly feral worlds of the imagination, rich tapestried language, monsters, magic, places where no one has the same rules, or they have invented new ways of breaking them. I’m the kid who heard fairies outside her window growing up, and hasn’t given up on them yet. And of course you have authors like William Gibson who take technology into places where my experience can’t follow, and it all comes back to what might as well be magic again (for me, I don’t mean to cause any controversy by labeling cyberpunk magical, which I know it’s really not!). Still, fantasy leans towards the callings of destiny, the great kings, the happiness that comes from feudalism…I don’t like that at all. But there are those novels like the Gormenghast trilogy that have brought so much wealth to my world through their very existence, and books by authors like M. John Harrison and China Mieville where I see some of my own politics echoed back at me, even amplified.

I love things like Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy too, but they don’t make me hold my breath until the page dims due to lack of oxygen.

For so many years I never consciously brought that together with my love of social justice and my struggle for a better world… as an organizer the books didn’t seem to have the same importance and I stopped reading so much. Of course, that wasn’t just true of speculative fiction, it was true of absolutely everything. Sleeping itself was cut down to below the minimum needed, much less literary exploration. It’s been nice to emerge from the fog of living emergency to emergency, political moment to political moment, meeting to meeting.

And what a joy to come back to these books, to re-read things in light of all I’ve learned, to hurl myself into the world as it was or could be or is now with some (monsterific) modifications, all through the words of some of the greatest writers bar none. At its best the genre allows so much scope for playing with ideas, for turning ideals and theory into things that are alive on the page. It is a genre for dreaming, for analyzing, for theorizing, for experimenting… all the things that turn me on the most when paired with imaginations that spark my own.

Friday night I saw Eleanor Arnason reading an exquisite little story about a silly king and a statue and the little hatmaker…I sadly missed the other reading as it was a long train ride home to the place I was staying. But Eleanor is a fascinating author dealing with so many issues of class, race and gender in her work, and always a pleasure to read. Even more of a pleasure to meet in person, we talked quite a bit over the course of two lunches, and I am proud to say that we at PM Press will be publishing one of her stories and an in depth interview with her next year, Mammoths of the Great Plains.

I also spent a great deal of time with Josh MacPhee, who brought a load of incredible prints and posters from Just Seeds. PM will also be publishing his next book Paper Politics, which is exciting. And it was nice to have someone else in the same boat more or less…the perilous dinghy of being a fan but much more of an activist, with little experience in combining the two. I think both of us felt we were in a little deep! But It was great to finally meet someone I’ve worked with and chatted with over email face to face…And there were so many more people I talked with, but I’ve limited mention to people who I know enough about to give a plug for and a nod to their work!

And the panels? Oh, they were great. They covered race, class and gender in the genre, looked at the future of food, the role of science and technology in the world we are building, the place of the superhero in comics…and so much more. Everything ran smoothly, the food was delicious, the stencil and print workshop was brilliant, the games mightily enjoyable…and Roosevelt University an incredible space. All in all I enjoyed myself immensely. Everyone there seemed amazing and I’m just sad it wasn’t longer, as there were a number of folks I didn’t talk to at all (I’m still a bit shy as well!). But what I have taken away is the compilation of a massive reading list, and the percolation of a million great ideas. The extraordinary women who put everything together deserve an immense amount of credit, and I definitely hope that it continues long into the future…