Unraveling Urban Life and Space
My interview about Immigrant Pastoral (my first book) dropped today, further promoting the paperback edition. The last answer in the interview is a preview of my second book, the currently-in-progress Design by Deficit. Readers of this blog will know that as the City Wild book, although it's got material from my other classes Studio: Next and even a little People in the Environment in it, too. Take a look at this link, if you like.
Today: Saturday morning, Main Street: around the corner sits something new. Brilliant blue leaps off the freshly painted storefront, its impact dwarfing its modest size. Against the background of dilapidation, color draws the eye. The storefront windows are a riotous display of brightly colored ads and signs for the store’s products, with one window dominated by a flag in stripes of red, white, and green. The door stands open, and customers come and go from cars parked along the street. Their greetings, like the signs in the windows and the store name newly painted across the façade, are in Spanish …It’s a part of Mexico in the Midwest, a place made by outsiders, a landscape reflecting a new culture in an old place, but it is also more than any of these. It’s the one storefront with fresh paint and windows with current displays and signs; it’s the one business with the lights on. It’s a reason to go downtown, a small counterweight against the tide of abandonment sweeping this city. It looks like the future, no more, no less.
- From Chapter 1, Hope and Home.
That “something new” isn’t new at all. Immigrants have always built this country, since before the Revolution to today. That includes projects we don’t see, like moribund shopping areas in small Rustbelt cities, and projects that make headlines. Like border walls.
Want more? Find the complete first chapter of Immigrant Pastoral here.
Also posted on Medium.
I'm pleased to announce I have a new study out this week, co-authored with former student Meghan Hazer and two Upstate Medical University faculty, Margaret Formica and Chris Morley. "The relationship between self-reported exposure to greenspace and human stress in Baltimore, MD," presents an investigation of the reduction of stress associated with spending time in or looking at green spaces. The article is available now online and will be out in print in an upcoming issue of Landscape and Urban Planning. As a journal article, it will be behind a paywall soon - but until October 13, it is available open access (that's free full text!) at this link: https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1Vbv0cUG56y~D
In celebration of the new softcover edition of my first book Immigrant Pastoral: Midwestern Landscapes and Mexican-American Neighborhoods, I've written a short essay setting the book within the context of the current (acrimonious) conversation about immigration and immigrants. It's strange how immigration, particularly immigration from Mexico, is simultaneously such old news and yet so very current.
You can read "Immigrants, Cities, and Why You Should Care" in its entirety here. The essay is posted on my new Routledge Featured Authors page, still under construction.
If you want more information about the softcover edition of Immigrant Pastoral, you can find that here.
Over the years I've had many people tell me they'd like to see an edition of this book at a price point more friendly to the student or young professional wallet - this is that edition! Have a look.
The statues are coming down. Some are surprised how easy it is to physically remove a statue, or just pull it down. It’s true: removing a bronze statue can be as simple as cutting through a handful of bolts, far less effort than it takes to reach consensus about whether the statues should stay or go. Statues of this kind, that commemorate famous men (and sometimes women) in public places outdoors generally sit upon a plinth or platform of some kind. That pedestal is by far the more difficult piece to remove, being a large block of solid stone or other masonry extending well below the soil’s surface.
The pedestal is essential to the statue - it keeps Stonewall or whoever from sinking into the ground or tipping over - but people don’t have strong feelings about plinths. It’s just the stage for the main event. A grand pedestal makes its statue higher, but also elevates it figuratively, saying that whatever stands atop it is worthy of attention, if not veneration. When the statue goes, that stage becomes empty. The way things are going, we may soon have quite a few of them.
What hen happens to the empty pedestals? The obvious choice is removal. Removing a pedestal is not so emotionally fraught, just a surprisingly expensive bit of demolition. Demolish the plinth, excavate its substantial footing, fill in the hole, and cover the spot with grass or pavement. You can make it look like no statue was ever there. That’s erasure, and some will say that is exactly what should happen. That park or avenue can look as though this entire argument we are living through never happened at all.
From an urban design standpoint, statues are more than who or what they honor. They are often the focal point of a space. The kind of traditional statues of soldiers and statesmen in question here typically form part of a symmetrical, classical layout, as the center of a circle or endpoint of an axis, for example. As focal points, they do not simply say “look at this person,” but also “look at this spot,” highlighting a location where lines cross or an important space is entered. If that focal point is totally erased, it will be odd, like a missing tooth. In other places, Confederate statues are one memorial among many, grouped on a courthouse lawn or in a park. In those situations, one memorial more or less won’t matter so much.
What else can you do with an empty pedestal? You can put something else atop it, a new player on the stage. This could be another permanent (sort of) memorial to a less controversial hero. Or you could sidestep permanence and use that spot as a rotating gallery of sorts, like the Fourth Plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square. Replacement is erasure, too, in a different, more dynamic form.
The empty pedestal itself calls to mind cathedral niches deprived of their saints during the Reformation. Those niches speak eloquently of the history of their churches and abbeys, before the Reformation and after. The empty pedestal and the void above it are themselves history. They are questions rendered in stone: what was here? why is it gone? why was it here in the first place?
Over 150 years have passed since the end of the Civil War, and we are arguing, bitterly, over these statues and what they mean and to whom. One hundred fifty years far surpasses the duration of the war itself, from 1861 to 1865. Our divisions over race, which are inextricable from the Civil War and its memory, are of course far older, essentially beginning with European settlement of North America. As a shaping force, these centuries-long divisions may be more influential than any war, even one as bitter as our civil war. If our public space should highlight important elements of our history, perhaps these divisions deserve a mention. But how do you memorialize a rift?
The empty pedestal makes a statement of its own. Here something was venerated, for some reason, and then it was not, for some reason. Perhaps these questions and the rifts they highlight deserve a spot among our war heroes and founders. A few of our soon-to-be empty pedestals could remain vacant, filled with questions about who we’ve been, and who we are.
(Also posted on Medium here.)
Assorted drafts, previews, and outtakes from the book I'm currently writing about the impact of vegetation and neglect on urban life. I also take other thoughts for a test drive here, including nascent design and research ideas.