29 July 2011

That which we have now, having never been

As some readers already know, before moving to my current locale, me and my wife lived in Chicago for many years. The last five of those spent in an apartment on the southside. Making the decision to vacate wasn't an easy one. My wife wanted to be closer to her family, which I definitely understand on account of them being such warm and wonderful people. I'd previously been very much averse to the idea of ever returning to the South; but in the wake of the grand financial meltdown of a few years ago, I was finding that there was no job market to keep me in the city I'd long considered "home."

And in the run-up to that meltdown, we'd been increasingly being priced out of most neighborhoods in the city. Ah well, I eventually shrugged, why not? The place had been losing some of its prior appeal for me anyway -- a couple of exceptionally long and punishing winters in a row, the homogenizing effects of the mayor's years-long "Giuliani Lite"/disneyfication of the city, the neglected infrastructure...there were a lot of factors in the equation in the end, far too many to list, but ultimately they amounted to a decision that perhaps it was time to move on, see how things fared elsewhere.

But most importantly we had to get out of the path of the bulldozers.

Y'see, our entire block was scheduled to be razed at the end of summer of 2010. The original reason for this had been to make way for a hospital expansion. But after the economy cratered, many institutions around the country had halted such projects as they watched their funds and endowments shrink. But supposedly the nearby university was looking for other ways to leverage the effort. Or that's how one story had it.1

The other story, one that began circulating in the community as the clear-out date approached, was that it had to do with the city's bid for the 2016 Olympics. The main stadium that the city had proposed building for the games was to go up in the park directly across the street from our building. So rumor had it that we were suddenly in a real estate hot spot, that developers were moving in with plans on what all could be done with properties in the area.2 So everyone get out right now -- no dawdling. At the time the city was pretty certain that the Olympic bid was in the bag. Within a few months of having left the city, news went out that the games were being awarded to Brazil instead. Which made me wonder: is there such a thing as a Schadenfreude Samba?

* * * * *

I only mention this because it connects with something that popped up today over at the Things Mag site, in which the editor muses over the mixed response to Iain Sinclair's latest effort, a quasi-psychogeographic tour of London as the city prepares and refurbished itself for the 2012 Olympic games.3 Things describes the book as "a sprawling trawl around the undeniably banal and venal regeneration surrounding the Olympics, haplessly mired in a stubborn nostalgia," further noting:

"Happily, we’re not alone. A recent Fantastic Journal post takes Sinclair to task: 'Like Marvin the Paranoid Android wandering Hackney Marshes, he suggests that all new building is pointless, all attempts at planning doomed and any development always the product of base venality.' ... What emerges from all this is more evidence of the steep valley that lies between history and nostalgia, wherein a penchant for the latter tends to shape one’s attitude and interpretation of the former."

From there, the author broadens the frame...

"The Internet exacerbates this condition, building up our perception of the past through the endless reproduction and celebration of past ephemera. The past is filtered through a lens of celebration, a perpetually art directed world, be it the gritty black and white world of life sold from a suitcase in these images of Brick Lane in the 80s, or Soviet ruins, or abandoned lunatic asylums, rusting machinery, filleted libraries, caches of Eastern European match box covers, esoteric ephemera from long-forgotten Olympic games, boring postcards, found photographs, passive aggressive notes left on refrigerator doors, weird LP records, shopping lists, ticket stubs, or even our own almost entirely context free Pelican Project.

Collectively, we've managed to make a fetish of the failed, forgotten and the marginal, mashing them together with the Utopian and the celebrated until the edges are blurred. Whether its the decline of manufacturing and urban centres or nuclear catastrophe or the collapse of the housing market is all rendered flat and equal by the vivid resonance of the image. This is where the overwhelming emotional content of a carefully filtered past meets our nostalgia for now ('...a mourning for the transience of a moment when you are still in that moment'), and the result is a state of being that appears to seek out the romantic past in every captured moment."

I suppose this "a fetish of the failed, forgotten and the marginal" has been a recurring theme here, if only because--it seems--it's been a fairly common fetish, of late. It takes different forms, and the reasons for this are numerous. Running a broad spectrum, some of it's fueled by the more mundane pursuits of collectors and enthusiasts, some of it is just the po-mo modus of cultural retro- appropriation siphoning out into a uncritical kitcshification of the past, while yet another variety of it it is the product with a certain aesthetic ennui with the present. But there's a portion of it that (I detect) that suggests by a deeper sociological narrative, springing from a sense of dread or impasse with where we've arrived in recent years.

* * * * *

Chicago is, as far as its population is concerned, a very Polish city. One cliché has it that in the years immediately following WWII, there were more Polish residents in the city of Chicago than there were in Warsaw. Owen Hatherley has apparently spent a good portion of this past year in Warsaw, and writes...

"The thing about Warsaw that everyone knows is that 85% of it was destroyed in 1944, and that it was then reconstructed to the letter after 1945. ...Accordingly, for a certain type of architectural critic or historian, Warsaw is irresistible. It is, for traditionalists, the road not travelled -- a city where, instead of modernism, we got a dignified reconstruction of the old world. In fact, neither of the statements is exactly true. Recent research makes clear that the 85% figure includes much that was more damaged than irretrievably destroyed, and it's also clear that the reconstructed city took frequently huge liberties with the historical fabric -- how could they not? And after some acquaintance with it... it's also clear that the modernist objection to the place -- as a Disneyfied simulacrum of interest only to tourists -- isn't quite right either."
The "road not traveled" theme is a recurrent topic in Hatherley's work, be it his defense of UK post-War neo-Brutalist architecture in his book Militant Modernism, or his more recent A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain. About the core inspiration for the latter title, Hartherly remarked:

"The short explanation is that I have become intrigued by the fate of "urban regeneration" in the light of the financial crisis; what the speculative redevelopments of inner cities look like after the debts have been called in. They have become the new ruins of Great Britain. These places have ruination in abundance: partly because of the way they were invariably surrounded by the derelict and un-regenerated, whether rotting industrial remnants or the giant retail and entertainment sheds of the 80s and 90s; partly because they were often so badly built, with pieces of render and wood frequently flaking off within less than a year of completion; but partly because they were so often empty, in every sense. Empty of architectural inspiration, empty of social hope or idealism."

For the uninitiated, Hartherley's blog can be found here and his regular Guardian column here.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

1. As it was, our end of the neighborhood -- the one facing demolition -- was home to an odd assortment of residents, not the least of which was a lot of pensioners and elderly (with fixed incomes and capped rents) that the University had moved there due to its prior expansions and displacements into other parts of the community over the years.

2. Add to all this that the neighborhood I'm talking talking about was also gaining a lot of media attention at the time on account of it being the home of the newly-elected POTUS. To see the news reports in national outlets, the community looked vibrant and idyllic. All of which was ironic, because during the 'Noughties we'd watched the neighborhood go into sharp decline because of politicians and developers inept and hapless attempts at making it attractive to potentially gentrifying northsiders. (For instance, over half the shops on the main drag being forced out of business by real estate speculation, and still sitting vacant some 18-24 months later.)

3. Admittedly, this isn't something I've followed, but I have on occasion bumped into the odd caustic bit about it over the past year.


W. Kasper said...

"schadenfreude samba" - LOL like it.

Had a similar thing with my hometown. Half 'regenerated' with a mega-shopping centre that not many people can shop in now. They paved over the 'local colour' for something it's increasingly laid -off workers got lukewarm about, to say the least. If I was being 'practical' (relatives etc) I'd move back there - but the mood of the place isn't exactly inviting nowadays. Doesn't help that its economy was very dependent on public investment (had an 'immaterial' boom of sorts under Labour). This govt. did deliberately target it for vicious cuts. It never voted Conservative, and now it feels punished. Also has a weird twilight feeling as they realise a decade of optimism was built on thin air. Not so much ghostly as reincarnated into a lesser animal.

Greyhoos said...

Yeah, it's kind of difficult...me breaking format to get all personal and 1st-person about such stuff. Let's just say that over the course of many years I watched the city head in a certain direction -- heading down a certain misconceived and ultimately doomed path. (I could go own at length, and it would take a long while.) Early on it wasn't difficult to gauge the disparities of what received priority and what got neglected, what populations/communities benefited and which ones got royally screwed. (Downtown's all draped in flowers & whatnot for all the tourists and conventioneers and suburbanites, meanwhile clinics are being closed and bus routes slashed in many of the poorer and working-class neighborhoods. City's tearing down all the projects and says they're gonna help reloc/transition the residents into other communities, but never gets around to the 2nd part of the plan. Mass transit's falling apart and threatening a "doomsday budget" year after year. The city's idea of "affordable housing" is well above something that most middle-class earners can afford. And etc etc etc.) And during the "bubble? what bubble?" years, it was difficult to imagine that it wasn't all heading to a situation like what's transpired these past two+ years. Once you strip away a lot of the locale-specific details, it's more or less the same isht that was happening everywhere over the past decade or so.

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