Everything Loose Will Land

“Tip the world on its side and everything loose will land in Los Angeles.”

Once said Frank Lloyd Wright, famously smug. In his mind was the teenage City of Angels, then and now a sprawling metropolis of traffic jams, cultural piracy, and media cacophony. Angelenos had no innate culture but for those rootless scraps landing from elsewhere, and so emerged the LA style of denuded cool. It was a raucous period extending from the end of the 1960s into the early 1980s where there emerged a new context formed by accord between art and architecture and contest between commerce and creativity. The dynamics of this period are what curator Sylvia Lavin explores in ‘Everything Loose Will Land’ at the Graham Foundation’s Madlener House in Chicago, Illinois.

The exhibit arrived in spring 2014 in Chicago after an inaugural 2013 appearance in LA (obviously), at the Mak Center’s Schindler House, and an interim show at Yale’s Paul Rudolph Hall Exhibition Gallery in New Haven, Connecticut. And for a exhibit documenting the emergence of an aesthetic common language from a place without one, that Lavin’s curation appears in Chicago—a city connected to LA by federal governance and not much else—adds a hint of irony to the show’s coy celebration of creative cross-pollination between art and architecture.

Included in the exhibition are 120 drawings, photographs, models, sculptures, and multimedia-miscellany from names like Judy Chicago, Frank Gehry, Cesar Pelli, Denise Scott Brown, Maria Nordman, Coy Howard, Craig Hodgetts, Ron Herron, and many others. The Madlener House, a 1902 mansion designed by Frank Lloyd Wright-contemporary Richard E. Schmidt, and present home to the Graham Foundation, hosts the exhibition on its main and second floors. A cardboard sculpture of Bloxes greets you in the main foyer. It has no explicit connection to Lavin’s exhibition but implicitly comments on the malleability of retrospection; a tongue-in-cheek welcome to how ‘Everything Loose’ celebrates the varied.

The works are arranged into four distinct categories—Environments, Users, Procedures, and Lumens—which the brochure copy declares as four triggers “that caused architecture to coincide with other art forms as it sought to engage in this new cultural logic [emergent in 1970s in LA].” It’s not immediately obvious that this is the intention for the exhibit’s organization, though whatever feelings of disarray one senses walking through the rooms is likely postmodern reverb from the aesthetic discord of 1970s LA, emanating from many pieces as a dull glow.

In Lumens, on the second floor of the gallery, a five-foot-tall blue plexiglass pane, designed by Cesar Pelli and Victor Gruen Associates, reflects Connections, a geometric glass and wood sculpture by Frank Gehry and Richard Serra. Behind that, Billy Al Bengston’s Tubsteak, iconoclastic and psychedelic, lacquer on formica. On the northern wall, four flatscreens with obscure footage by Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson, John Whitney, and Eric Saarinen (son of Eero, who introduced the 20th Century to extraterrestrial architecture). In the room on the opposite side of the wall plays a film by Environmental Communications, originally installed in 1977 at LACMA.

The first floor is dedicated to Users and Environments. Unlike the white walls of the upper floors, the main floors pop with the fluorescent pinks and golds of painter Judy Ledgerwood’s Chromatic Patterns installations. These are floor-to-ceiling paintings reimagining baroque window screens against two-dimensional drywall, and much like the Bloxes, separate but complementary of Lavin’s selections. Collages by Ron Herron (Archigram), one-off catalogs and publications by Judy Chicago and Leon Koren, event posters by Morphosis, and handwritten notes from artist and architecture studios, present a multi-sensate visual mediated not only by materials (large plastic bubbles guard ephemera in appropriately space-aged fashion) but also by time itself.

Lavin calls the “cultural epistemology” emergent in 1970s LA a product of looseness and a “precise model city of the future.” Her exhibition highlights the interchange between the visual and architectural arts that, at the pinnacle of the postmodern era, established contexts for new cosmopolitan languages, apparitions, and celebrations. ‘Everything Loose’ suggests that culture, like matter, does not disappear; it lands.

[This article was written for the 2014 Frieze Writer’s Prize, which I am proud to add to my growing list of contests lost. I hope you’ve enjoyed my failure.]

Boston: Spring 2014

I went to Boston at the beginning of May to visit my wife’s family. Here’s a sampling of the pictures I took with my dope-as-hell GoPro. You can view the rest at my Flickr.

Boston Museum of Art
Boston Museum of Art
Paul Revere, Old North Church, Boston, North End
Paul Revere, Old North Church, Boston, North End
Boston North End
Jane Jacobs’ favorite hood
Across from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Harvard Medicine Quad
Harvard Medicine
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Auditorium, Renzo Piano
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Auditorium, Renzo Piano
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Addition, Renzo Piano
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Addition, Renzo Piano
Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Le Corbusier
Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Le Corbusier
Ralph Waldo Emerson's House
Ralph Waldo Emerson’s House
MIT Chapel, Eero Saarinen
MIT Chapel, Eero Saarinen
Kresge Auditorium, Eero Saarinen
Kresge Auditorium, Eero Saarinen
Statue of Thoreau at Walden
Statue of Thoreau at Walden. Raindrop on the lens.
Site of Thoreau's Cabin
Site of Thoreau’s Cabin
Boulders in Upton State Forest
Boulders in Upton State Forest
Upton State Forest
Upton State Forest


Letters to Ted Kaczynski: Part I

[I began writing letters to Ted K back in 2011. I needed a muse and so I designated Ted K as the would-be receiver of my epistolary confessionals. I have and will never sent these letters to Ted K. They’re for my own amusement. And now yours. I plan on posting them intermittently. Following is the first such letter I wrote. I hope the NSA or FBI or whatever has a line item for CNF.]

Dear Mr. Kaczynski,

I first want to thank you for your prompt reply. As you say, we just go through the motions. For that reason I want to try my best to explain. Our perception is not merely what we apprehend on a conscious level. There are nuances. Like the way our teachers illustrated stellar collapse with cartoons and talking insects.

I thought they said sprained at first, but what do they know? It was probably a result of these relentless jumping jacks. What do I care? Why do I care? Pour some fish down my throat and call me Jack Daniels Jr., Robber Baron of the Little American Ocean.

On the up-swing, I’ve lost 15lbs in the past seven weeks. The same can’t be said for everything. You know how it is. What did me in was the catering gig. It was a wedding celebrating the union of a spritely young divorcee and a fifty-something VP. They booked it at this sanatorium in Skokie called ‘Misericordia,’ which as a word sounds like an Aligherian invention. We worked in a kitchen the size of a Petsmart. Most of the time I ran empties from the bar but by the end of the night I had a limp like a Vietnam vet. You were never enlisted, were you? I’d support you either way, but these are our options: Drop a cinder block on few bicuspids and sip mint juleps on the weekends, or spend four years doing pushups and getting beaten by Duracell-packed tubesocks. Uncle Sam failed me as a role model.

With a bum knee, my flight to Boston failed to be a gas. I was cramped in coach and because it was a last minute thing I had a layover in Detroit. I was only there for two hours but that’s still two hours more than anyone should have to spend on Michigan soil. In its defense, DTW is a damn nice airport. I’ve spent a lot of time at Midway, so I know what I’m talking about. What would happen to Detroit if DTW went out the GM-way? Michigan is the USA’s finest testament to the strength and longevity of Bold American Industry. I just read that the city has a less-than 50% literacy rate. Internet nerds raised $60k to erect a Robocop statue at the heart of Eight Mile. Peter Weller has become the Aryan laughing stock of Masonic International. What’re your thoughts on the DC Pentagram? (This is a getting-to-know-you question. Be as direct or circumspect as you wish.)

I bid (bide? bided? bought?) my time by people watching, comparing gaits and breast sizes; trying to guess the weight of the Tennesseans being carted to Gate A1. What is this obsession youthful and sometimes non-youthful women have with yoga pants? Is this part of our Great Slovenization? We’re pretty well into the 21st century. Slop is the new Betamax. It sips on 666-calorie macchiatos and showers in Diet Coke. Then again, I shouldn’t point fingers. I swallowed a four-egg omelet whole while waiting at ORD that very morning. The woman sitting next to me on the plane fell asleep on my arm. The only thing worse than trusting a stranger is being entrusted by one. Wouldn’t you agree? This is a greeting card sentiment, but truth is truth. She woke up on her own and had apparently found a way to use her cell-phone at 30k feet. I’m surprised the plane didn’t start flying backwards.

When I finally got to Providence, my friend picked me up in his GMC (go fig). He gave me an update about the kinds of girls he’s into and how he’s gunning for this kick-ass third-shit job that pays like a billion dollars. He smoked four cigarettes in twenty minutes. We stopped on the way to Ashland because he needed some weed bad. He lives with his mom.

This reminds me, in my first letter to you. I forgot to ask about Seeley Lake. I’ve always wanted to visit Montana. 147,000m(2) of Pure Anglo Autobahn. I bet you could fall off the earth out that way. I once saw My Own Private Idaho. Is it like that?

Anyway, we ended up at my friend’s Friday-night stomping grounds; a low-ceiling’d strip mall joint called The Corner Pub. The Bruins were on and I was told my beard would help me fit in. The air quality is different in New England—like long-cut Skoal, Wintergreen flavor, and a side of 2-1 Jim Beam. Wings to go.

Conversations involved the complexities of lures, baits and Asian carp. What else is there to talk about really? My jeans were too clean to pass for Real Deal, but they liked my joke about the California wildfires. I drank a Grateful Dead (Long Island Iced Tea with Jim Jones’ Kool Aid) and chased that with a Coke heavy on the Jack, which was itself heavy on the water. The microwaved French fries were congealing in my stomach, so I walked across the street to the 7-11 where I snorted a line of Ibuprofen and browsed the bin of free shot-glasses. I snagged a pair that said “Old Geezer Pleaser.” There was a sun-bleached mosquito at the bottom of the “Daddy Drinks Because You Cry” glass.

Grieved as he was by the Bruin’s eventual unsurprising loss, I paid for my friend’s dinner while he paid for my drinks. I did the math and he came out ahead.

Remind me to tell you about Newport in my next letter. Meanwhile, please enjoy the bag of Carmellos I’ve included in this mailing. It’s the least I can do.

– bvl

Five Ways to Make X Look Like the Dickhead He Is

[Following is an experimental piece I wrote for theNewerYork a year-or-so ago. It combines mathematics and juvenile self-loathing. All that’s missing from this Neopolitan combo is the strawberry flavor.]

1. Neo-Yiddish Poo-Poo Sequence: X + [shm(X-Y)]

X = thing you want to poo-poo
Y = consonant(s) prefixing X; if there are no consonant(s) prefixing X, Y=0

Example: You are at a friend’s party. Another attendee at the party invited Chase even though nobody likes him and he is a tool and he is dating your ex-girlfriend. You are cooling your head outside and moments later, he also steps outside. He has the audacity to ask if you can spare a cigarette. He knows you don’t smoke. Respond with the Neo-Yiddish Poo-Poo Sequence.

cigarette = thing you want to poo-poo
X = cigarette
Y = c
cigarette + [shm(cigarette-c)]
= cigarette shmigarette 

2. Conditional Question-Subervsion Hypothesis: I should(emphasis) * [(Q*-0.1)/Q] + …if I were + [(D)P]

Q = ironic idea suggested by entity for something you can do
P = derogatory term
D = [a ≡ P begins with a consonant] ∨ [an ≡ P begins with vowel]

Example: You are standing outside a friend’s party and have been joined by Chase, who is an idiot and who knows that you don’t smoke, but he asked you for a cigarette anyway. You tell him that you do not smoke. Chase wonders if you guys are chill. He suggests that if you were to pick up smoking, you might be less stressed and more chill. What is the best way to apply the Conditional Question-Subversion Hypothesis in this situation? Show your work.

Q = I should pick up smoking
P = total idiot
D = a
[(I should pick up smoking*-0.1)/I should pick up smoking)] = -0.I should pick up smoking
Based on the Principle of Ironic Rephrasal, -0.X has all of the properties of Implied Inherent Negativity, thus -0.I should pick up smoking = I should pick up smoking
should pick up smoking + …if I were + [(a)total idiot]
= I should pick up smoking …if I were a total idiot.

3. The Norris-Allen Algorithm: N + (T*√2) + Just kidding

N = corn-balled one-liner from a B-grade or C-grade action movie
T = normal amount of time it takes for someone to realize you are/might be joking
Because √2 is an irrational number, term (T*√2) is often expressed as a pause just long enough to make things uncomfortable.)

Example: You rejoin your friend’s party. The host of the party approaches you. You suspect that it was she who invited Chase. It seems like she intentionally arouses contention so that she might make herself more relevant or interesting or whatever. She can tell you are upset because you’re having a hard time opening your beer. She opens the beer for you. She smiles and says, “Don’t step on any toes,” though you can tell she means the opposite. Respond to her employing the Norris-Allen Algorithm where N is equal to a corn-balled one-liner from Braddock: Missing in Action III.

N = “I don’t step on toes, I step on necks.”
T = 1.1 seconds (based harmonic mean of host’s standard conversational pace with blood alcohol level > .001 points above legal limit)
I don’t step on toes, I step on necks + (1.1*√2) + just kidding
I don’t step on toes, I step on necks + (≈1.555719) + just kidding
= I don’t step on toes, I step on necks. (Pause just long long enough to make things uncomfortable.) Just kidding. 

4. Type 1 Negative Patronymic Quotient: -0.X / [Y(?) + Good ol’ Y + (M/{Z})]

X = how annoyed you are
Y = first name of subject you are deriding
M = surname of subject you are deriding
{Z} = set of puns and derogatory terms rhyming-with or related to M
Determination of NPQ application determined by probability of {Z} distribution. If {Z} is null, Type 1 NPQ is null.

Example: You are sitting alone on the couch at your friend’s party. You are on your fifth beer. Some guy from work whose name you can’t remember but who is super annoying sits down on the opposite end of the couch and strikes up a conversation with you. “Good party,” he says over the music. “You know that Chase Ursal dude? His Lexus has some sweet-ass ground effects, bro.” If possible, provide {Z} and articulate proper Type 1 NPQ response. Choose one condition from {Z} to complete your calculation.

X = super annoyed
Y = Chase
M = Ursal
{Z} = {Ass-sal, Asshole, Urse-hole, Ass-salve}
Based on the Principle of Ironic Rephrasal, “-0.super annoyed” has all of the properties of Implied Inherent Negativity.
Type 1 NPQ: Chase? + Good ol’ Chase + (Ursal/{Urse-hole})
= (said with IIN) Chase? Good ol’ Chase Urse-hole.

5. The Rocks-Off Principle: {A}B ⊃ -{A}(Well, whatever gets your rocks off).

A = condescending tone
B = something a dickhead wants

Example: You are at your friend’s party and have had more beers than you can count. You have been saying things you will probably regret later, but you don’t care because everyone is dumb. You hear Chase whispering to his dickhead friends that he wants to teach you a lesson. This dickhead clowder then approaches you with Chase at the helm. He says, “Leave, or you’re going to be more than hungover in the morning.” Based on the information given, if you reply with the Rocks-Off Principle, will this force Chase to make good on his threat?

A = {condescending tone inferred from implication of threat}
B = leaving you “more than hungover in the morning”
{condescending tone inferred from implication of threat}to leave you “more than hungover in the morning” ⊃ -{condescending tone inferred from implication of threat}(Well, whatever gets your rocks off.)
Based the Apparent Reciprocated Condescension, Chase will make good on B. However, based on the Overpositive Schlitz-Factor, you can find no good reason not to suggest that Chase is free to do whatever will get his rocks off.

Let Me Tell You about the Ibexes

[I took a free trip to Israel in winter 2012 as part of the sometimes-criticized ‘Birthright‘ program, which is an Israel/non-profit/private-funded trip for American Jews between age 18-26 to visit Israel. I would turn 27 shortly after the trip, so I got in just under the wire with Shorashim. It was a great opportunity (to be taken with salt, surely, because nothing in life is free), but my favorite parts of the trip were where we had opportunities to encounter Israel’s natural history. Politics aside, the Israel-section of the Mideast is a geological and biological treasure trove. I wrote the following story sometime in early 2013 in recognition of this.]

– – –

The ibexes were out. We got to the kibbutz later than expected, hours after sunset, and that’s when I saw them.

Don’t feed the ibexes.

I don’t know how long we’d been driving. I was out of it for most of the bus ride. Maybe there was bad traffic around Be’er Sheva. We had stopped there for lunch after our morning at the Havat MaShash farms. I thought it might have been the overstuffed shwerma that knocked me out, but my dreams weren’t the empty sort brought on by a big meal. Instead there was something like a gray, synaptic daze brought on by the dry heat of the Negev—that undulating, sepia skyline. I have a faint memory (fata morgana?) of a few Bedouin men wandering camelback through the hills, though there was a weatherworn Peter O’Toole lingering in the periphery of my dreamscape.

I came out of it later. There was a buzz. Other voices on the bus said the shimmers to our right were the lights of the magnesium refineries reflecting off the surface of the Dead Sea. If it was day, we’d be able to see across to Jordan. I tried to extract shapes from the darkness, but there were only those distant florescent orbs, blinking like stars. It was as if I’d swapped one twilight for another.

Soon forms came into view and the bus drove past the various resorts and spas lining the shores of the Dead Sea. They seemed mostly empty. It was still winter in Israel, which meant the temperature only hit 85 on a warm day and dropped to the low 40s at night. As a native Chicagoan, I’d take an Israeli winter over a Lake Michigan February any day.

We pulled into Kibbutz Almog. Like most of the kibbutzim in Israel, the commune once functioned as an mini-socialist-agrarian-utopia, but respondent capital insistence, Almob started to pay the bills by offering cheap hostel services to groups like ours: bleary-eyed Americans needing a place to crash before running off to the next thing. At the other kibbutzim we visited, many in our group would kill the dull night hours with alcohol and summer-camp flirtations, but this night, there was something heavier in the air.

Don’t get scarab.

Our guide was a thirty-something Israeli Defense Force veteran, as are most Israelis who aren’t ultraorthodox, Arab, or disabled. He looked like an older version of Encino Man, weathered by the Mediterranean sun. His home was in Tel Aviv. “Set your alarms for 4 a.m. tomorrow morning,” he said. “It’s a long climb, but it’s worth it.” He had done it a hundred times, and said this line at least that much.

Our goal was to catch sunrise from the top of Masada, a former Herodian refuge. It’s set on top of a 1,400-foot plateau overlooking the Dead Sea. According to Josephus, the Sicarii (Latin: knife men/contract killers), a group of anti-Roman Jewish Zealots, took claim to the refuge around 66 CE. They made it their home base for a few years, but were eventually isloated by the Romans. Rather than be taken alive and enslaved, the hold-outs killed themselves. A practical defeat, but an ideological victory, supposedly.

Though it only afforded five hours of sleep, 4 a.m. still seemed a long time off. We unloaded and laid claim to our respective rooms. I threw my luggage down on a random bunk, washed my face, and headed down to the mess hall to catch the tail end of dinner. Rice and tomatoes. The mess hall started to clear out as people split into their factions, embarking on their late-night rituals. I hung back to let my food digest. I knew I should get sleep, but after my afternoon reverie, there was no urge. I could smell the Dead Sea (mineral oil, milk of magnesia) through the open windows.

Outside a mineral haze hung low, thick. Saline molecules hovering like moths around porch lights. I found a secluded portico, beyond the welcoming center. The air was still, stirred by soft echoes of laughter and bats flying blindly through the trees. I felt content, alone. There was everything I had been told about Israel, and then everything I had seen—but there was nothing that intimated this.

I’m not sure how long I sat. I closed my eyes. After 2 minutes? 20 minutes? A sound snapped me out of it; a break in the night rhythm. Inhuman. An animal grunt. Not unfriendly. More of an announcement. An ibex emerged from behind the flora. Roughly the same size as the goats I’d seen on my friend’s farms growing up in Wisconsin, but more regal. Its semi-circular horns curved halfway across its body like scimitars. Black, opaque eyes and a little grey beard, like its American relatives. It gave me the same look a dog gives when it wants your scraps. I showed it my empty hands and shrugged. It snorted again, which I interpreted as an ibexian shrug.

Fear not.

Another ibex emerged from the darkness, and then another. They paid me no mind, but I still got the feeling that I left my meeting notes at home. They sniffed around, quietly scrounging. For a moment, I heard them speaking. Nothing that translated to the human language of rhetoric and fervor. It was gentler than that; placable and amoral. I began to feel like an intruder, and soon, I felt fatigued, as if I’d suddenly remembered my sleeplessness. I left the gathering and wandered back through the campus to my room, where my bunkmates had already turned down for the night. I took off my shoes and fell asleep in my clothes.

It was a slow, hot climb the next morning up the IDF-cut Snake Path on Masada. The haze still hadn’t receded, but we made it to the top just in time for the sun to peak over the Judean Hills on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea. The rays ignited the lingering mist. Is this what the Sicarii watched and wondered at?

I walked to the summit, which reaches a mere 190 feet above sea level, and looked east. There were the ruins of the Roman ramparts and beyond those, endless desert canyons. A few vultures circled high above. On a distant escarpment, barely distinguishable from the striated canyon walls, I spotted a group of young ibexes, their horns still pointing upwards. They were casually exploring the cliffside, minding nothing. One wrong step would send them plummeting 800 feet to the desert floor, but this is a hard-wired capran habit. A goat climbs because, why not?

The air was growing hotter, sapping whatever moisture still lingered. I could almost taste the sun. I didn’t feel like an intruder watching the ibexes this time. Just an outsider.

On top of Masada. Dead Sea in the background. Infest t-shirt in the foreground.

Serious Tower: Reading Homan Square

In October 2013, I was graciously invited by my friend, John Rich, executive director of Chicago’s venerable Guild Literary Complex, to participate in a reading event organized in cooperation with the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s Open House Chicago. The reading was held at the ‘Original Sears Tower‘ in Lawndale’s Homan Square on Chicago’s west side. I was one of four readers and the idea was to have each reader take semi-rapid turns reading fragments of a larger piece to create a literary, brick-like effect. Though not heavily attended—the weather was somewhat unwelcoming and the architecture-loving public is generally scared of Lawndale—the event was a success. What follows is what I wrote and (mostly) read for the occasion.

I’ve found the most beautiful place in the world. It’s in Chicago and I’ll never see it again. Even my retelling of it now destroys it, much like how the clarity of a dream dissolves the moment we try to remember it. But I’ll take my risks. It was two Saturdays ago, roughly ten o’clock in the morning, Graceland Cemetery. The air was crisp and cool; the skies, clear; the breeze scentless and auspicious. The leaves on the trees were just beginning to turn.

I was walking along the outer perimeter of the cemetery. The paths cut through swaths of burial sites peppered with obelisks and Masonic iconography and muffled whispers of whatever traffic sounds manage to scale the high brick walls. The grass is short and the trees are like tall, gnarled monoliths, moderating the silence of the grounds and framing the distant sadness of others with a dim morning shadow. I had a Murakami moment where I found mind running parallel to itself, like my consciousness was a 3D movie that I was watching without glasses.

At the northeast side of the perimeter, there is a lagoon. It’s hidden behind a dense shroud of flora and powerful oak trees that, at that point, were less like monoliths and more like columns supporting an ethereal dome. As my view of the lagoon unfolded, the general subterranean awareness of myself as a citizen of Chicago, and of the city in general, began to dissipate. It was as if I was entering in or stepping down.

Compared to the lagoons you find in Garfield Park or Humboldt Park, this particular lagoon is more like a reflecting pool. There are no birds, no fish, no people. Just benign, pregnant silence. Across the lagoon stands a bold, white, Greek Revivalist sepulcher with tall columns obscured by the tendrils of weeping willows reflecting off still surface of the water.

Briefly, in that parallel place, I had a feeling of remembrance. I hate double negatives, but the best way I can describe it is as not unpleasant. But much like how the recollection of a dream destroys the dream, the remembrance of a memory destroys the memory. So I was instead left with that general not unpleasantness—a vestigial trace. And then the El thundered by.

We’re standing today in the vestigial space left in the traces of those Holy Men of Capitalism, Richard Warren Sears and Alvah Curtis Roebuck. Sears was from Minnesota, which his parents came to by way of England. And the Sears family had been in England by way of Normandy since 1066—the age of the Norman Conquest that probably didn’t involve battle axes, wizards, and dragons. As a name, Sears comes from the Old English, Saeger, which is also a German occupational surname from an Old German word meaning ‘saw-yer’ or ‘person who saws wood.’

Alvah Roebuck came to Chicago by way of Indiana, and his patronymic goes all the way back to the Anglo-Saxon tribes of Britain. More wizards and dragons, and probably some templars and druids. And yes, despite what Britain would have all of us think, it had tribes just like everyone else. Unlike the occupational surname where most modern families can follow their patronymic history, Roebuck has more animistic roots, functioning as the name given to the people thought to resemble an actual roebuck, or native deer, in some way—physical or otherwise.

Today, it’s rare to meet a Sears and even more rare to meet a Roebuck. But at least in Chicago, the two names are directly associated with the once powerful and now just regular retail giant—somewhere above Kohls but under Nordstrom. Sears and Roebuck were capitalists in the truest sense of the word, and the new ‘meanings’ of their respective names is now less reflective of the bloody battlefields of Anglo-Saxon Britain and moreso reflected off the quarterpanel finish on the new Cadillac fleet. In a thousand years, when people are speaking of the brutal anti-humanism of the Information Age, will they say of the Sears and Roebucks that they were powerful men who rose to positions of prominence and power through the ruthless exploitation of smart marketing practices, consumer psychology, and excellent merchandising strategies?

Power is supposed to be built on bloodshed, not board meetings.

I once had a roommate who, in simple terms, liked garbage. He drove a van and considered it ‘quality time with friends’ when he would roam the alleys of Chicago’s northwest side looking for broken lamps, boxes of old Danielle Steele books, and dusty AV equipment. If I had met him as a kid, he would have been the guy who had all of the coolest toys, except all of them were missing a battery or a button. And whose mom, for some reason, was always watching Ricki Lake.

He would always show off his stuff to me, claiming that this old Sears-brand receiver from the 1960s could get, like, a hundred bucks on eBay. All he had to do was fix this-or-that thing. Everything he owned, it seemed, could go for like a hundred bucks on eBay. Including the mayonnaise-jar-sized bottle of Ritalin on his nightstand.

When he was moving in, I realized that the flow of garbage and broken AV equipment that was gathering in his room was quickly moving out into the kitchen, dining, and living rooms. Like a thrift store mudslide. And I’m more of a minimalist. Which is to say, I think everything has its time and place. Like garbage, for example. The place for garbage is the garbage. That’s why it’s called garbage. So I put my foot down.

I said. “I understand that you want to decorate this apartment. I want to decorate this apartment, too. The problem is, in that corner there, I want to decorate it with Nothing.” That was my indirect way of telling him to keep his mess sequestered.

He gave me a confused look. “You can’t have nothing there,” he said.

I said, “Yes you can. I want to put a thing in that corner, and the thing I want to put in that corner is Nothing. Nothing belongs in that corner. It will help the flow of the room if there is Nothing there.”

He walked away. When I came back later, I found a lamp in the corner. No light bulb, covered in rust, a hole in the shade roughly the same size as the base of his Ritalin jar.

There goes Nothing, I thought.

Might makes right. Which is to say, the powerful make the rules. And though power, historically, has been built on bloodshed, it doesn’t necessarily follow that bloodshed leads to power. In Lawndale, for example, there have been 16 homicides in the past year alone. And in the past month, there have been over 250 ‘quality of life’ crimes, over 140 property crimes, and over 76 violent crimes. According to compiled FBI data, Lawndale ranks number 13 in America’s 25 most dangerous neighborhoods, beating out neighborhoods in cities like Indianapolis, Memphis, Flint, and others. There are over 80 violent crimes per thousand people in Lawndale, and roughly 36,000 people live here. If these numbers neither increase nor decrease, this means that 450-or-so people will become a statistic in Lawndale sometime in the next 365 days. There’s the bloodshed.

Power is a bit more complex. But we can grant, for this conversation, that wealth equals power. We’re materialists; there’s no argument here. Also, we like to quantify things. So in this sense, it’s worth noting that at just above $25,000 annually, median household income in Lawndale is just a few paychecks above the national poverty level for a household of four. Median household income in the Near North Side neighborhood is closer to $76,000. In crude terms, there’s the power.

This connection between power and bloodshed is abstract, informed by our remembrance. Which is to say, our ideas of this arbitrating forces are informed not by our history, but by our recollections of history; and our dogmatic insistence that these concepts remain unchanged (because what happens if we no longer understand power?). Our recollections provide an insufficient conceptual framework for solving the deficiencies and shortcomings of the present—or for seeing deficiencies and shortcomings as deficiencies and shortcomings. The solutions we present for correcting these problems—new social programs, weapons bans, drug warfare, bureaucratic policies—are founded on outmoded paradigms of urban self-understanding. As an amalgam of traces, the city is the problem. And simultaneously, as the arbiter of history, the city is the solution.

I said before that the city is the solution. I don’t mean this in any idealistic sense. Rather, I believe that it is the city itself—with its infrastructure, its physical, psychical, and social connections, its endless creative possibilities and potentials—provides the conditions necessary for realizing a solution. Like how the Pullman Historic District—an isolated historic community in the midst of a depressed Chicago neighborhood—is close to achieving National Park Status. If our city is broken, maybe the fix looks less like a spot of hydrogen peroxide and a Band-Aid and more like medieval-style traction. The old school Sears and Roebucks would get it.

The failure of the Neosporin/Band-Aid treatment is evidenced most strongly in how we treat our architecture and infrastructure. If you’re in the loop on the Chicago architectural conversation—no pun intended—you know about the travesty of Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Hospital as a recent example of this. It’s an attempt at erasure, but even as Northwestern builds over this icon, the icon remains. But more explicitly, look where we’re standing today. It’s a vestigial and quadratically phallic fragment of a former economic steadfast, bold in its legacy but diminutive in its effect. Sears and Roebuck—mighty men of business as they were—would likely not ‘sign off on’ this bantam banter, but we’re standing here today in a cathedral, and what’s a cathedral without a congregation? And without administrative offices?

Let me put this in more concrete terms. Fifty of Chicago’s public schools were closed earlier this year. There has been plenty of ink dedicated to the social, economic, and especially racial implications of this, but little has been said of the infrastructural impact. Cathedrals without congregations. What happens to the buildings? Can they be used differently? Does our conception of the word ‘use’ limit our thinking on the potential of these newly-made shells? What happens to the neighborhoods for which these buildings were created and alongside which these neighborhoods grew? What gets taken away, and what remains?

It was a Wednesday or Thursday afternoon, height of the summer. I was a couple of years out of college, working as a glorified secretary for a well-to-do non-profit in the Loop, putting my philosophy degree to good goddamned use. At the time, I’d always pick up my lunch from the Japanese pre-made sushi place, buying the three-dollar-and-fifty-cent brown-rice-and-avocado sushi and a small can of green tea. It’s the healthy lunch of just-under-living-wage. Plus, the rice or the avocado or whatever else was in there always gave me an upset stomach. Or as I called it, dessert.

I would eat in the plaza on the south side of the Chase Tower, with its three-story fountain, carb-fat pigeons, and fenced-off Chagall mosaic. On this particular day, I was polishing off my rice and cracking open my green tea, and a woman approached me who came straight out of a McCarthy novel: clothes tattered, stained, stiff in places. Smelled like bubble-gummy para-di-chloro-ben-zeen. She sat down next to me so that her leg just barely touched mine.

“Give me a drink of that tea,” she said.

I smiled. But defensively, like an orangutan.

“You’re so handsome,” she said. She put her hand on my knee. “Give me a kiss,” she said. And it was in the pause between her saying that and her puckering her lips that I was actually able to count her teeth. There were five.

I said to her, “That is something I cannot do. But you can have my green tea if you like.” It was my penance. I thought, it might not be as good as my kiss. And then I thought, is there anything so bad about giving out kisses to anyone who asks? And then I thought again and said to myself, yes, there is something bad about that. Hopefully the green tea will appease, here.

And it did. She pushed away from me, drank the tea in one swig, and walked away, empty can in hand. She neared a garbage bin at the corner and threw the can on the ground in front of it. The chemical bubble-gum smell hung thick in the air, with some of the other lunchers giving me those ‘what’re-you-gonna-do-people-are-weird’ eyes, some chuckling. Whether at my good fortune or the lady’s good fortune, it’s hard to say.

The Chase Tower, on the other hand, said nothing.

To clean a bloodstain from a couch, you first need to concoct a detergent solution using dish soap and cold water. One tablespoon for every two cups should do. Once properly mixed, wet a dry rag with the solution, and then use the rag to dampen the stained area. Dab.

Then comes the brushing. Do it gently; curb your fervor. You don’t want the blood to absorb further in the fabric or spread outwards.

With another cloth, wet with water but not detergent, blot your work. Then use a damp cloth for the final rinse. Repeat these steps as necessary. And then dry with a clean, dry towel. And hope that nobody comes by with an ultraviolent light.

To clean a bloodstain from history, you also need a detergent solution made from dish soap and cold water. And lots of permits. And millions of dollars. And a complacent public. And a crew using the latest techniques in sustainable demolition in order to minimize waste and maximize profitability. And a clean, dry towel.

In his book, Delirious New York, Rem Koolhaas writes, “Manhattan is an accumulation of possible dangers that never happen.” In this case, Manhattan is an analog for the modern city. The buildings grow tall, but never tip or falter. The elevators climb just as high, but never plummet. Nature threatens to become obsolete, but persists just the same.

But Koolhaas is speaking strictly of architecture. Not the phenomenology of the plans that make Manhattans and Chicagos and Detroits and Los Angeleses possible. Only that the anxiety of these infrastructural dangers has been sublimated into our collective unconsciousness, so that when we face the necessity of cosmopolitan change and evolution, we prefer to proceed on a path of progress paved with white papers, red tape, and board meetings. Bureaucracy is the logic of this subterranean fear and it impedes imagination—the imagination necessary to not see an empty warehouse as a space to be filled, but a space that can be transformed—and that the conceptions of this transformation not be limited to the insularity of this space, but this space as a space among spaces. The Sears Tower as Homan Square as the homes of Homan Square as streets of Lawndale as the West Side as Chicago, and so forth.

What we need is a lagoon of the mind.

I Made ‘Music.’ Listen To It.

My music-making moniker is Hebdomad, a strange word that means a period of seven days.

The name of my album is Borborygmus, an ugly word that means the rumbling/gurgling noise made by the movement of fluid and gas in the intestines.

I made most of this album as an undergrad in 2009 and 2010. The music utilizes found sounds, sound isolation and delay, sound loops, and various sonic tricks to produce cerebral and unsettling ambient textures. Or not. Give it a listen. Download it for free.

If and when I get more time in the future, I will make more. But this one still holds up, I think.

A Dandelion Grows in Cairo

A dandelion grows in Cairo, but not where you’d expect.

I’m in Cairo, Illinois. Locals pronounce it care-oh. It’s a small town of 2,831 at the southernmost tip of the state, occupying the 9.08-square-mile interfluve at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. It’s a sweaty, summer afternoon, and I’m standing under the shade of the rusted marquee at the Gem Theater on 8th Street, the heart of Cairo’s historic district. The theater was built in 1910 and rehabbed in 1934, with a three-story red brick façade and Art Deco-style Terra Cotta finishes at the crown. The theater has been closed since 1978, and wilted plywood covers its windows. A ruddy strain of hairy crabgrass has forced itself through the decomposing sidewalk like alien patchwork.

Across the street, I face a block of shuttered storefronts, parti-walls sullied by water damage, mallows, and crawling spurges. A motley troupe of rotten saw horses sections off an entrance to an abandoned bank with a collapsed roof, but on the central eave of a second-story window, highlighted against the faded boards, a smiling spot of yellow dances in the humid breeze—a dandelion. Like much of Cairo, the street is silent, but for a brief moment, I sense joy from the weed.

And, I suppose, in the heart of this—the degradation of ‘Main Street’ (or 8th Street)—there is a victory, too. But for whom (or what)?

I’m a child of the American Midwest, and have never needed to venture far to glance at the future. Even a cursory stroll down Main Street (or 8th Street) portends decline, but this is a shortsighted view, without hope or aspiration. Alternately, though the melancholy of the dandelion on the eaves suggests the sublime beauty of nature’s persistence, it’s saturnine to merely sit by and wait for this transformation to erase the vestiges of our ‘civilized’ pretense. Our look to the future should thus be informed by our view of the present as it is suspended between the auspices of environmental progression and the self-congratulating vagaries of so-called forward thinking.

Looking in this way at the infrastructural tendrils and appendages of Small Town America, we first must understand that the constructed world also functions as a mirror. Does the devolution of Small Town America reflect a human regression? According to a 2007 study by the United Nations, seventy percent of all humans are expected to live in urban areas by 2050. Left behind are the effluvia of forsaken infrastructure and architecture; this, the supposed shrapnel of a shattered mirror. But suppose this is a myopic view? That is, what if the devolution of 8th Street describes this suspended view—this aspirational view?

With a view towards the future, Cairo is interesting in the dual sense that, as an old industrial city, its story is fairly representative of Small Town America’s rise and decline, though the city’s socially volatile background also casts it as an analogical synecdoche for the Large American City. To investigate, let’s stroll off 8th Street and take a bird’s eye view of the district:

In 1818, John G. Comegys, a St. Louis merchant by way of Baltimore—and avowed friend of Meriwether Lewis—purchased an 1,800-acre plot of land in the area that would be Cairo. He recognized the developmental possibilities of locating a commercial center at such a heavily trafficked confluence, though he died roughly a year after the purchase and when his family defaulted on the land payments, ownership reverted to the federal government.

The completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 and subsequent growth of cities like Rochester and Syracuse in the Northeast served as the impetus for other investors and land developers to look westward in an attempt to capitalize on the nascent waterway economy. This lead Boston-based investor Darius Holbrook to incorporate the Cairo City & Canal Company in 1837. Like Comegys, Holbrook saw the value of locating development on the interfluve, despite the fact that its low elevation rendered the land swampy and resistant to settlement. Holbrook thus sold bonds to improve the area with a levee system, shipyards, a dry dock, and other amenities. Over the next few years, Cairo’s population swelled to 1,000, though in 1840, the London investment firm holding Holbrook’s bonds failed and development immediately froze. Cairo shrunk eighty percent in the subsequent two years, and by 1845, the city had a population of 113.

Exacerbated by frequent flooding, Cairo’s early economic depression put it far behind where it wanted to be as it compared itself to other river cities like St. Louis and Memphis, which were then bustling with antebellum river travel. However, when the Illinois Central Railroad opened in 1855, Cairo saw new growth. The railroad entered Cairo latitudinally from the north and ran atop one of the levees flanking the city, successfully locating Cairo on the line from Chicago to the Gulf of Mexico. When the city officially incorporated in 1858, nearly 1,800 people called it home.

With the Civil War brewing, the Union thus identified Cairo as a strategic location for staging its campaign: Missouri was West across the Mississippi River, Kentucky, East, across the Ohio River, and both Arkansas and Tennessee were less than 60 miles downriver. The US Navy set up base along the Ohio River-side of town and the State of Illinois, along with the US Army, rounded up 2,000 volunteers to build Fort Prentiss at Cairo’s south end, which was then developed by Ulysses S. Grant into Fort Defiance. The New York Times called it, “The Gibraltar of the West.” And by the end of the war, over 40,000 Confederate prisoners had been processed and passed through Fort Defiance.

And, of course, with such close proximity to the South, Cairo also served as a major point of passage for escaped and emancipated slaves. Nearly 3,000 African Americans were living in Cairo by war’s end, and by 1870, with 6,267 people living in Cairo, there was an unusually high ratio of black to white citizens. And by 1900, respondent to continued growth, Cairo’s population had more than doubled, and approximately 5,000 of its 13,000 citizens were black, accounting for five percent of the state’s total black population. But even as Cairo grew, jobs remained competitive, and many local white groups weren’t exactly excited about having an integrated work force. Racial tensions were high.

That Cairo was attached to a Union state was not enough to inoculate racial prejudice. The relationship between economic stress and racial turmoil is often correlative, and though Cairo had grown, its economy was completely reliant on the rail and river industrial infrastructure, and the city itself was betting on the permanence of this industry. Economically, this is like betting the whole bank on red seven at the roulette table; it’s not sustainable. It was in this way that the completion of the Illinois Central Railroad Bridge over the Ohio River in 1889 marked the slow beginning of Cairo’s economic decline, cutting into the city’s prior load of passing as many as 500,000 rail cars per year across the rivers. Ferry traffic slowed, and the completion of a second rail bridge over the Mississippi River in 1905 in nearby Thebes, Illinois, the shipping industry in Cairo took another hard hit.

Growth in Cairo slowed and the city reached its peak population—15,203—in 1902. River barges were growing in size and capability and Cairo was no longer an essential port. And though the city still had an active hotel and restaurant industry, the completion of the Cairo Mississippi River Bridge in 1937 and the Cairo Ohio River Bridge in 1939, allowed travelers between Missouri and Kentucky to completely bypass Cairo. Between 1940 and 1960, Cairo’s population shrunk from 14,407 to 9,348.

Racial violence was a constant. The city was quickly heading towards depression, and with jobs and pay low, it made leaving Cairo just as difficult as staying. And for much of the working-class white population, it was easy to point fingers at the 39 percent of the city that was black. With the Civil Rights movement making waves by the close of the 1960s, Cairo became a hotbed of racial violence. The catalyst: on July 15, 1967, Robert Hunt—a 19-year-old black soldier home on leave—was found hanged from the rafters at the Cairo police station. The (white) police force called it a suicide. The black community called it a murder. Scores of riots broke out, leading the Cairo police to deputize a white citizens force (the “White Hats”) and further propagate violence and enforced segregation.

The violence became so bad that, in 1969, then-Illinois Governor Richard Ogilvie deployed a National Guard outfit to control the violence. Many of Cairo’s already struggling businesses were being protested, and some were burnt down. A ban was instated to prevent protests within twenty feet of business entrances, leading to further violent riots. And then, the completion of the Interstate 57 Bridge over the Mississippi River in 1978 delivered a final blow to Cairo by making passage through the city completely unnecessary. This, complemented by such a volatile social atmosphere, led to another period of flight, and by 1980, Cairo’s population shrunk to 5,931. Amtrak’s City of New Orleans line, which previously had Cairo as a stop, began bypassing the city in 1987—the same year Cairo’s only hospital shut down.

Between 1980 and 2010, Cairo’s population shrunk by an average of 21.9 percent per decade. In 2010, Cairo had an official population count of 2,831, with the ratio of black to white residents 2.5 to 1. Per capita, crime in Cairo is high, but with such high counts of burglary and assault, it’s clear that Cairo’s violence is now a matter of economic depression more than political aggrandizement. A drive down Washington Avenue—Cairo’s main stretch that intersects 8th Street—is like a tour through an apocalyptic movie set; welts of rusted industrial detritus and overgrown commercial debris like wreckage from a bygone era.

Despite Cairo’s ossifying economy, legislature continues to impose itself in the region. In 2010, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed a bill to create an Alexander-Cairo Port District, increasing Cairo’s federal grant eligibility and tax levy opportunities. This may also have been what saved Cairo during the Mississippi River floods in 2011, which rivaled the great floods of 1927, 1937, and 1993. As rising waters threatened to wash out Cairo, the US Army Corps of Engineers blew open a two-mile-wide gap in an earthen levee in Missouri, flooding 200 square miles of farmland and destroying nearly 100 homes. The effort spared Cairo but served as yet another iteration of the role human contrivance has had in obviating Cairo’s otherwise senescent ontogeny.

For better or worse, the story of Cairo is strictly a human story. Like all cities, its tribulations have transpired with nature on mute. It’s easy to wonder where that scalene slice of land would be without two centuries of infrastructure embedded in its swampy soil. When you wander the streets of Cairo today, you see that the violence that once ran rampant in the city has been erased and rendered senseless by the dandelion growing on the windowsill of the crumbling bank.

A view towards our ever-urbanizing future is impossible if our concrete scars—and the stories told be these scars—are completely erased nature’s aggressive incursions. Nature should not be contradicted, but neither should history. An ‘aspirational’ view of the future is suspended between pop-environmentalism and postmodern urbanism; it recognizes the primordial eminence of nature alongside the callow aspirations of ‘civilization.’ Understanding these two concepts thus creates a historically conscious context, allowing us at once to investigate the past and be critical of the present, and in this way, make decisions about the future of our selves, our cities, and the way we treat our dandelions.

[This was an essay I wrote in 2013 for the WOLF Essay Contest. I didn’t win, but the essay isn’t all that bad, I don’t think. Also, I’m pretty sure the contest was some kind of scam.]

[Cover photo by Tourismguy]

Zion, Illinois, or, is That Calf Driving a Land Rover?

You’re fifty miles north of Chicago, driving along Sheridan Road through the main drag of Zion, Illinois. Lake Michigan is a few hundred yards to your east, beyond the pot-holed parking lots, Taco Bells, and boarded-up bodegas. More than 24,400 people call Zion home, and according to the 2010 census, median household income tallies just under $52,000 ($1,500 above the national level). It’s a squarely middle-class city, with the requisite parades, community theaters, and ice cream shops that make it the kind of down-home place Joe Christian has in mind when he talks about God’s America. That the city is called ‘Zion’ is not entirely coincidental.

Incorporated in 1902, Zion was originally the Utopian brainchild of John Alexander Dowie, a bearded, eccentric faith-healer and founder of the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church (CCAC), an early Pentecostal forebear (‘catholic’ meaning ‘universal’). Considering the ‘averageness’ of Zion in this context, the city likewise serves as an ideal analog for Joe Christian’s America, because it’s also difficult to ignore the blight beyond the main drag, where the cityscape is darkened with foreclosed homes, an empty, decommissioned nuclear power plant, and a grossly high percentage of people living in poverty (17.5%).

On one hand, you could say that God has left Zion. Supporting this is the 1992 civil suit filed by the Illinois Chapter of American Atheists that claimed the term ‘God Reigns’ and other religious imagery used on the Zion city seal violated the constitution. The Supreme Court agreed.

On the other hand—weighing Zion’s blighted averageness against the word ‘Zion’ as the apex of Judeo-Christian mythology—you could say that ‘God’ has been in Zion all along, but not in the way Dowie or Joe Christian insists.

In 1888, at age 41, John Alexander Dowie—a Scotsman by way of Australia—arrived in America. Originally ordained in the Congregationalist Church, a Protestant denomination, Dowie became an independent faith healer in 1879. His penchant for showmanship drew a big following—and a lot of flack. So when things got tense, Dowie looked to America, then swelling with immigration and impoverished, struggling families. There the audience would be receptive to his apocalyptic dramaturgy and opportunities for ‘healing’ would be ripe.

Alexis de Tocqueville once prophesied of the American man who is “full of a fanatical and almost wild enthusiasm,” and the sects arising that “endeavor to strike out extraordinary paths to eternal happiness.” Dowie fit the type, brandishing the elaborate hellfire prophecies that often flare when centuries turn. Appropriately, he set his sights on Chicago, which was hosting the World Fair in 1893 and saw over 27 million in attendance. He set up a tabernacle across the street from the fair and thousands came to witness his fervent healing ceremonies

Having cultivated a large flock as such, Dowie founded the CCAC in 1896. As it gained power (capital), Dowie sought a place, a Utopia, where the church could grow free from the travails (or critical eye) of the heathen world. Chicago was a den of sin, but nearby land was still unsullied—and cheap. Dowie purchased a 6,600-acre empty parcel of land north of Chicago. He would call it Zion City.

Dowie planned the streets in a grid, like Chicago, and drew main roadways diagonally across the city to mimic the Union Jack. Residents—mostly CCAC members and some working-class folk hired to build Zion—were required to sign a ‘Zion City Lease,’ which forbade medical doctors, dancing, tan-colored shoes, and other vices. Around 5,000 people were living in the city in 1902 when it was incorporated, and CCAC membership had grown to 30,000 worldwide. Zion was its capital.

Of course, Dowie’s actions did not always coincide with his doctrine. He had a bully’s reputation and punished criticism. He lived in a mansion and had penchant for gourmet food, fine clothing, and expensive ‘missions.’ Due largely to of Zion’s conservative moral policies, businesses struggled to take root. The city was losing money, and Dowie wasn’t helping. He was voted out of leadership in 1905 and with health fast declining, he died from a stroke in 1907 at the age of 60.

Zion survived Dowie, as did the CCAC, which is still headquartered there, operating as the Christ Community Church. Though membership has dwindled to 3,000, Zion itself grew throughout the 20th century, due to the suburban expansion and industry growth in the surrounding area. Now, with the few northeastern Illinois industry steadfasts having been outsourced or declared bankrupt, the local economy is depressed, employment is low, and despite having once fought to be ‘set apart,’ Zion is indistinguishable from its neighbors.

Within the space of a century, whatever lofty idealism went into the manufacture of Zion has been subsumed by the same steady flow of sprawl and abstract economic interests ultimately regulating all forms of contemporary material idealism. Joe Christian believes this is because God has been replaced by the Golden Calf of Greed. It’s what wrecked Zion, after all. This, Joe says, is the problem with America; it’s a Christian nation, built on Providence and corrupted by bad intentions.

But what if the Christian idea fosters its own malicious intention? What if we are indeed a ‘Christian Nation,’ but not in the way Joe means? That is, Joe’s Christ is a fat stack of Benjamins, but he doesn’t know it (and sometimes, neither do his critics). America pioneered Capitalism in its present form, and as Max Weber famously argues, its ethos is inseparable from the Protestant position. The God of the Christian Nation is the Golden Calf of Greed, but it’s hard to tell when the Calf is driving a Land Rover with a little white Ichthys sticker shimmering over the license plate.

Joe looks at the present condition of America and bids all good Christians to pray. What Joe doesn’t see is that a place like Zion, Illinois—with its blight, depression, and history of failure—is a picture of his God’s answer.

[This was an essay I wrote in early 2013 for entry in the Freedom From Religion Foundation Brian Bolton Mature Grad Student Essay Contest.]

Prophylactics, Pig Heads, and Preservation: Chicago’s LaBagh Woods

The following essay provides a street-level history of one of my favorite ‘secrets’ in Chicago: the LaBagh Woods. I wrote this at the beginning of 2013 and am putting it here because, fuck it, it’s my website and I can do what I want. Plus, I couldn’t find a good place to get this published. So here it is, Internet. Enjoy.

It’s not every day you find a pig’s head in the forest. And it’s not every day that forest is within Chicago’s city limits. But there I was, on my bike; a lime green, single-geared off-road beast built by me to weather Chicago’s most disagreeable aberrations. It was late summer turning to fall, and I’d been exploring the LaBagh Woods on Chicago’s northwest side for months by that point, and then, an overcast afternoon, muggy. Deep within LaBagh’s 600 acres, somewhere along the banks of the North Branch of the Chicago River cutting through the forest, a cadaverous vignette: Pig’s Head Atop Tree Stump. Not exactly a Carvaggio.

I was used to the broken bottles, the condom wrappers, the rotten rubber tires, the pseudo-Latin King graffiti, and the other urban ephemera coloring the forest paths, but the pig’s head was a new sort of eidolon. I imagined a cold breeze, and misty cover from an obscure 1980’s C-grade horror flick. I U-turned and took a fast way, but on my ride back, I kept looking back to see if the head was following me. And then I realized, no, that’s just a bus.

By that point, I’d not been in Chicago long. A year-and-a-half, tops. I was (and am) a suburban expat. I came to Chicago for school and since stayed to live. My university was in the North Park neighborhood (home to around 18,000 Chicagoans), where Foster Avenue meets Kedzie, roughly two miles west of the LaBagh Woods. I was studying philosophy, and most of my nights were filled with Ramen and Kierkegaard. And, inspired by Kierkegaard (as strange as that seems), I’d take study breaks and walk around the neighborhood, which was then still new to me.

I lived across the street from a place called Ronan Park. Not much happens there, which is why I usually walked over there to clear my head. Sometimes there are pick-up soccer games, impromptu track meets, or occasional stabbing, but that’s it. Most people go to Ronan Park to watch the waterfall, which is the best word us Chicagoans have to describe the six-foot-high concrete spillway where the serpentine North Branch of the Chicago River dumps into the unnaturally linear North Shore Channel.

It has been a few years since I’ve visited Ronan Park, but in the brume of my memory, a scene at the other side of the confluence, opposite the spillway. There, a weatherworn man with paint-stained jeans palming a brown-bagged 40-ouncer and watching the ducks bob amidst the Styrofoam cups and river foam. For a moment, with the sun hanging low and glowing orange over the city, I envision a Rockwellian picturesque, but the man soon reaches the bottom of his drink and chucks the empty glass at the brace of mallards. The bottle falls three strokes short and the man cursed the Universe, and his mother. The ducks pay the man and his malignancy no mind, because, really, what’s one more piece of trash in the river?

But I enjoyed the solace I found at Ronan Park. It pulled me back to Earth, in a way. In the midst of that busy neighborhood, Ronan Park is like a hole punched in the urban fabric. Sure, it has the city grit and dollar-store shrapnel, but birds gather there—sometimes a blue heron, sometimes a swift—and it’s quiet, too. I suppose it’s a more conceptual or microcosmic calm than you’d find in, say, rural Colorado, but still, there’s quiet, hemmed with dissonance though it may be. Lending to that is the idea that here, you have what the city is, and in the same place, what the city is not. The simultaneity is disconcerting: in its myriad forms, life somehow manages to persist and coexist in spite of itself.

A picture of the LaBagh Woods, for the hell of it.

Despite the quietude, the version of Chicago at Ronan Park is hardly a picture of The City As It Used To Be. But using the North Branch of the Chicago River as a guide, one can begin to understand the peculiar sort of life thriving in this simultaneity. The farther you travel upstream, this energy darkens, intensifies, and—in its own atavistic way—compels. It arouses a clairvoyant break from the banality of city life. And, part-time-employed and low-waged as I was when I lived in the neighborhood, banality abounded

North Park is a stolidly lower-middle-class neighborhood, and an ethnic hodge-podge to boot: large concentrations of Eastern European, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, Korean, and Caucasian folk filling out the generic streetscapes of walkup apartments, bungalows, and low-rise storage buildings. Aside from Ronan Park, the only feature breaking up the scene is the river running through the center of the neighborhood. There’s not much else happening there, and the more time I spent living that, the more my wanderlust itched. It might be the bleakness of the shuttered storefronts or the constant wail of a distant ambulance sirens, but when you look at the river, humming and swelling behind restaurants and repair shops and single-family homes, a picture forms: a prairie, spotted with wildflowers and maple groves, watered and whetted at the marshy riverbanks.

It was this pastoral scene that first attracted non-native settlers to the North Park area, then part of Jefferson Township, in 1855. With their agrarian senses tingling, immigrant German and Swedish Dream-seekers saw some prime, fecund potential in the land and promptly set up camp. And though there was busyness and progress and murder happening in Chicago nine miles south, Jefferson Township—and its little burgh of North Park—enjoyed a bucolic life until the area was subsumed in 1889 during a fit of gerrymandering by the City of Chicago as its politicians established an auspicious bid for the 1893 World’s Fair.

The gerrymandering, and the Fair itself, led to an exponential population boom in Chicago. Between 1890 and 1910, the city’s population doubled from 1.1 million to 2.2 million. The numbers looked good on paper, but the city’s infrastructure was weak, as evidenced by the growing pollution program and resulting sickness emanating from the Chicago River. Raw sewage was being dumped into the Chicago River, which was itself emptying into Lake Michigan—the fresh water supply.

The solution? Reverse the river. The effort, completed in 1900, utilized the Sanitary and Ship Canal (SSC), constructed on Chicago’s south side between 1892 and 1889, to cause the Chicago River to flow away from the lake, rather into it. All of the waste would be sent via the SSC to the Des Plaines River (a longitudinal river running parallel to the lake twelve miles west), and then the Illinois River, and finally the Mississippi River watershed—a bona fide American solution.

Though there was all this vivisection happening to the southern appendages of the Chicago River, the passage and flow of the North Branch running north of Ronan Park has remained relatively undisturbed since it was first ‘discovered’ by early, pre-19th-century, pre-Jefferson Township, non-indigenous Chicago settlers. They named the branch the Guarie River to supposedly honor a French trader who had a roughrider reputation in those sepia-hued days.

The eight-miles of Chicago River between Ronan Park and the Loop is still called the North Branch, but it’s swelled by the North Shore Channel, which connects to the river at Ronan Park. The channel was dug between 1907 and 1910 to complement the river reversal by drawing lake water from eight miles north in the suburb of Wilmette and sending the flow downstream (nowadays, it’s mostly used for kayaking and body dumping). Taking its Cartesian cues from the Chicago city grid, the channel runs a straight line, whereas the North Branch, upstream of Ronan Park, describes a more serpentine, northwesterly path. Its form is first used to shape the border between the neighborhoods of North Park on the north side of the river, and Albany Park on the south. From Ronan Park west to Pulaski Road, there are only a few areas of exposed riverbank, most of which are accessible by fence hopping or trespassing. But even if you were to risk the $250 fine, you wouldn’t find much in these havens aside from the debris of teenage debauchery and Krylon’d professions of everlasting love.

Where the North Branch meets Pulaski Road at the intersection of Foster Avenue and Pulaski, it forms the centerpiece of Gompers Park, a 39-acre park with crushed gravel paths and rainwater lagoons that straddles Foster Avenue. And then, it is beyond Gompers where most northsiders lose sight and thought of the Chicago River, as it leads past the northwest corner of the park.

There are two reasons us city-dwellers stop thinking about the river beyond this point. The first is that if you try to use Foster Avenue to loosely follow the direction of the river, you’ll hit Highway 94 after a few blocks past Gompers Park, and then beyond that, there’s endless residential sprawl all the way to O’Hare Airport. The second reason, and one that likely reflects on the disquiet of my own imagination, is that if you stay on the bank of the river and follow it through Gompers Park, you’ll eventually hit the shaded boundary line of the park, loosely indicated by a felled tree stump, fungal detritus, and a rusted chain-link fence being overtaken by an alien, slimy heath. A hole is cut in the fence, and beyond that, along the banks of the river, a rocky path wanders into the darkness of the sallow dell (flashes of Stand By Me).

For a time, I saw this boundary line as an end point. A place where the city stopped, and nature—or my citified notion of it—began. And for reasons callow or dogmatic, I felt no pull beyond this safety of the familiar. A city like Chicago penitently observes the ordered decorum of modernity, and I, its citizen, grant this as the natural order. The streets are set up like a grid, ordered alphabetically and numbered small to large. Electricity, gas lines, sewage, and fiberoptics run underfoot like bodily systems sheathed in a skin of concrete and steel. I have an address, a social security number, a tax ID number, an employee ID badge, a library card, a credit card, a driver’s license number, a passport; all of these the alphabetized and numbered effluvia of metropolitan self-consciousness.

Order of this sort is a semblance; a massive Potemkin framework. What we call order is nothing more than nature laid out in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. Much like the mind, nature abides by a more cryptic logic. The fearful call it chaos, but even this is a type of imposed order. It’s one thing to recognize the exoteric mystery of nature, but it’s another to dismiss it as mere pandemonium. Theological generalizations occlude wonder and violate the a priori structure of the natural world, which is and will forever be a mystery. This is the mystery drawing us into nature (or in my case, past the boundary line of Gompers Park), as if some vestigial fragment of our psyche longs, hears, speaks, and communes with this hidden world. It’s a conversation held at some pituitary corner of the subconscious; the place where awe is culled under the ancient dome of a Redwood canopy or sunset Rocky Mountain shadow.

There’s nothing in Chicago as grand as that, but even along the urbanized stretches of the North Branch, there’s a sense of the sublime, as if the boundary line where the city stops and ‘nature’ starts isn’t as dichotomous as us pseudocartographers would like it to be. Early in my Chicago days, I felt no curiosity beyond the boundary line, but I was still shedding my suburban skin and that dogmatism soon lost itself to gravity. I wanted to see what else the North Branch had to show, and that’s when I realized my bike could have value beyond grocery portage and beer runs. I threw on some knobby tires and splash guards, and kicked it into high gear (or, single gear, rather).

My bike, the ‘Nature Boy’ by All City, looking fly in the LaBagh Woods.

It’s beyond Gompers Park where the LaBagh Woods begin. Infrastructurally speaking, the woods comprise a remote and somewhat isolated arm of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County. Fifteen or sixteen versions of Gompers Park could fill the six hundred-acre forest, and though some rural Illinoisans might have backyards this size, in Chicago, undeveloped land is a rare commodity; especially a tract this large. The FPD has cut a few small groves and shaded picnic areas in the woods, but due to LaBagh’s proximity to the highway and relative isolation from neighboring residential areas, the public areas aren’t conveniently accessed and are underutilized as such. The parking lots adjacent to the groves are usually occupied by Toyota-driving, mid-level managers and unemployed state-college graduates seeking sylvan congress (link is NSFW).

And though it seems it, the location of the LaBagh Woods is not entirely incidental. At the turn of the 20th century, as neighborhoods and businesses on the northwest side of the city continued to grow, the woods (yet unnamed) were starting to shrink. Illinois legislature didn’t form a forest preserve district until 1915, and as such, land conservation went unregulated. The responsibility for that thus rested on the public, and it was in this conservationist spirit that in 1901, Ella LaBagh, a Chicago resident and small-time philanthropist, was riding her bike (!) along the North Branch and witnessed firsthand the destruction and shrinkage of the forest. As an active member of the Irving Park Women’s Association (est. 1888), LaBagh began photographing and presenting her concern. Her grassroots campaigning, as well as the efforts of other Illinois conservationists, led the Illinois legislature to create a forest preserve district in the following years. However, it wasn’t until 1940, when LaBagh was 85, that the forest was named in her honor. LaBagh died in five years after that, and though there is a stone erected at the edge of the woods with an etching honoring LaBagh, “as a pioneer in establishing forest preserves,” hers is a name relatively obscure in the annals of Chicago history.

True conservationists may argue that though LaBagh’s name doesn’t have a Daley-level notoriety, she nonetheless managed to help preserve some prime Chicago real estate. For them, that’s legacy enough; sticking it to the man in perpetuity. That the LaBagh Woods are there, rather than houses or highway—this means something, if only that the woods are there to provide a glimpse into the world that would be. But beyond this, the LaBagh Woods are also something of an anomaly. As the North Branch flows through the woods, transposing city scree, so too are the woods a type of permutation; not quite urbane, but not agrestal, either. What’s a gray zone like the LaBagh Woods supposed to say?

This question stewed. I’d ride my bike to various remote corners of the city: Douglas Monument Park in Bronzeville, the mansions of Austin, the Union Stockyard Gate in Bridgeport…all of these things interesting, but without the prescient beck of the North Branch. Perhaps there was or is some strange force in the river and the woods beyond Gompers Park, but for me, it was the lure of the question: what’s in them there woods? What’s that darkness?

By bike, I’ve found that getting into the LaBagh Woods the back way works best. Using Ronan Park as a starting point, I take Kedzie Avenue north to Bryn Mawr, and then take that west. I pass through a four-block area dubbed ‘Korea Town’ by locals. Past that, a solemn, pot-holed stretch of road running the north-end length of the sprawling Bohemian National Cemetery. There is a retirement village on the side of the road opposite the cemetery, which I have always found supercilious. The road narrows once you cross Pulaski, and there’s another graveyard followed quickly by a diminutive industrial park speckled with mid-century flourishes.

And then the road ends, as indicated by a foreboding Jersey barrier sheathed in yellow reflectors. In years past, this point would have marked the intersection of Bryn Mawr and the Weber Spur, a former Union Pacific Railroad right-of-way and part of the Chicago and North Western lines. The spur was used from 1897 into the 1980s, but fell into abandonment, with the tracks finally getting pulled up around 2010. In their place, a 20-foot wide gravel scar cutting through the heart of the LaBagh woods. The shoulders of the spur, as they open up into oak and hickory forest, are lined with goldenrod, milkweed, and aster, with teasels and saxifrage intermingled amongst the stacks of moss-covered ties and sun-bleached city trash left to decompose or disappear into the oblivion of earth.

Railroad tracks used to be here. Now there’re just vagrants.

A few hundred yards down the spur, the woods surrounding you will darken and obscure the fact that you’re in a city zip code. The forest diffuses the sounds of the highway, which lies just a few hundred yards to the west, and in place of this, a breeze ruffling through the treetops and the whistle of a passerine. But there also moments of reminder, as when the spur bridges the North Branch. The railings of the bridge have been plucked and pilfered, and in the dry months of the year, you can look 25 feet down to the river below. The spans of the bridge are covered in years of graffiti. Broken bottles, condoms, and rusted cans of spray paint pepper the steep riverbanks.

Various paths spin off the spur and wander into the forest. Some of these are used by cyclists or hikers, others by pleasure seekers and midnight partiers. But a human sighting in LaBagh is rarer than an encounter with, say, a deer. These aren’t the muscled deer of Northern Wisconsin lore, but the more cunning, auspicious cousins, who might snack just as well on a patch of clover as they would a bag of Doritos. I was once riding my bike through the woods on some sunny summer afternoon, and on rounding a sandy bend in the path, I came face-to-face with a six-point buck. He looked up at me for a moment, chewing quietly, and then pushed his nose back into his lunch. I told him to move, but his ears twitched; a deer’s version of a shrug. Eventually he let me pass, and I got the impression he learned this sort of passive aggression from other similar bipedal encounters.

The forest has the earthy smell of an older, pre-Chicago. I was never in this older world, but the woods somehow help me remember it, effervescing the vapors of the river life once teeming along these riparian riverbanks. Of course, life still teems along the North Branch, especially if you follow it farther north as it trifurcates at Morton Grove. But, that far north, the city gives way to the suburbs, and not far beyond there, the homogenous, agrarian expanse of the central Midwest. This progression reflects a type of transition, or blending, but it is microcosmic points such as the LaBagh woods that provide a more immediate evolutionary snapshot.

The North Branch is ligature from an earlier epoch, and the viridian tissues clinging to its polluted riverbanks, a testament to the obstinacy of creation, the surety of change. A white-tailed fawn dashing through a meadow of bluejoint grass shaded by a towering McDonalds billboard: what triumphs here? What will? Our interaction with nature, despite our ideological intentions, is one of arcane servility. Emma LaBagh saved the woods because she loved them. But why? Perhaps this is the same root emotion Christians have in mind when they equate love of God and fear of God.

In the LaBagh Woods, as I could feel at Ronan Park, I sense the insistence of life in all of its disconcerting simultaneity. Here and there an empty bottle of Olde English, and sometimes, somnambulant at the edge of the forest amidst the flowers and deer, a lonely, anonymous man. Not exactly the same one at Ronan, but his blood, and the blood of all, runs just as red. (I want to call this blood the ‘the river of mortality,’ because I’d really love to compare the North Branch to my own arterial flow. But the term sounds like it was stolen from a Star Wars novel, so I’ll keep it parenthetical.)

And now we’re back to that late summer afternoon. It was an uneventful ride into the forest, but that day, I took a different path, obscured by a shallow ditch of cattails and thistle. The path led to the riverbank, through a shaded glen. First, an anonymous man sat drinking a brown-bagged bottle (not uncommon on a summer afternoon in LaBagh). A dismantled, 35mm camera was slung incidentally or symbolically about his neck. He stared at me (or through me) in the same nonplused way as the buck. The sky overhead was glum and threatening rain. I rode on, following the path along the river, tires slipping over the damp, varicose roots cutting across the hard-packed dirt. As I approached the northern end of the forest, noticed what I thought was sand piled atop a small boulder near the apex of a trail spur leading to one of the public picnic areas.

I dismounted and went to investigate. I thought it might be sand, but the color was too tawny and the shape too unnatural. As I neared, it seemed that the sand was moving, as if someone had left a wedge of casu marzu cheese out to stew. But then rounding the boulder, the shape of a brow, the curve of an animal snout. A death smell. A pig’s head, its severed neck crawling with maggots and grub, its eyes plucked, mouth sagging and agape. Likely it was scrapped from a weekend barbecue, but I’ve seen enough movies to want suspect something more sinister. I looked through the trees for cloaked druids or naked Wiccans as such, but instead there was only the whisper of a mist beginning to fall and the ominous hum of wasps looking for a bit of ham-on-the-skull.

Casu Marzu cheese. Them’s maggots in that cheezus.

A century ago, pig’s heads might as well have been floating down the Chicago River like felled lumber sent to the mill. This encounter was uncanny, but likely not so phenomenal in this ambiguous realm. I think of writer and naturalist Loren Eiseley, at the beginning of his book, The Immense Journey, where he writes of his own encounter with an animal’s head. As he runs his hands along the walls of a dark sandstone crevasse, he finds a skull embedded in the walls of the canyon. He exchanges a blank stare with the ossified beast, and wonders, “The creature had never lived to see a man, and I, what was it I was never going to see?”

The pig’s rotten cadaver, perched on that rock in the gloom—it reminded me of Eiseley and his skull, but inverted: the creature had lived—and died—under human hands, and what’s in front of me that I’ll never understand? Two separate questions, maybe.

Since that day, the only other pig’s heads I’ve seen have been behind the meat counter at the Mexican grocery stores in Albany Park. And I’ve since moved away from North Park (but not to the suburbs, God help me), and farther from both Ronan Park and the LaBagh Woods as such, but I still walk to the river, and I still ride to the woods when the weather is agreeable. That tension is still there: the empty 40-ouncers, the used condoms, the water bottles, the diesel flatulence, the wailing sirens, the urban refuse. These things remind me of my place. And then there is river and the anomalies of its dissonant oases, the animals bathing on the river’s shores, the grasses and trees drinking from its damp shores, the soft whisper of it flowing through alleyways and parking lots, the obstinacy of its atavism. And in it, a rotten pig’s head; a convoluted mirror, this.