Architecture, the Public Realm, and Small-Town America

Returning to North Judson typically leads to my resuming a favored pastime, to wit, engaging in crosstown perambulations that usually lead me to no destination other than, ultimately, home, the starting point of these jaunts. In such an eminently walkable small town where I know as many citizens as I do, these generally prove to be most enjoyable ventures: often, I find myself conversing with a local shopkeeper (or barkeep!) or clers; buying a milkshake (a real milkshake, from our drive-in restaurant!) whereof my spare tire, vetoed by my taste buds, certainly has no need; or being beaten up by a cadre of small children who know me from the grocery store, my days umpiring, or my parish. Beyond these social benefits, of course, lie the salutary effects of exercise and breathing in fresh air, quite the change, literally and figuratively, from the time I spent inside the Capital Beltway, where the noxious fumes that I receive now only through the purifying filter of the television screen permeate the opaque gas that passes as “air”.

Once Upon A Time

Once Upon A Time


These frequent strolls are not without their more disheartening effects, though. The overly romantic vision of North Judson that I have consistently painted, in my mind and for others, whenever I have lived elsewhere over the last six-plus years, stands in stark contrast to the dilapidated, struggling hamlet that I call home. Most of the lots along our main drag fall into one of the following categories: Vacant, hosting an abandoned building, hosting some form of second-hand store. Most of the sites not doomed to one of these are home to only mildly successful businesses; few, if any, operations in North Judson truly thrive.

 

And Today

And Today

What, perhaps, vexes me most, though, is the tremendous decline in communal self-respect in North Judson, as evinced by the absolutely dreadful conception of “architecture” that has come to dominate. I recognize the folly of expecting to experience the emergence of neo-traditional architecture — or many new buildings, period — in these parts, but the sheer contrast between, for instance, the “chicken coop” (In my sharp-as-a-tack ninety-five-year-old grandfather’s words!) dance studio and the simple, but highly public Hoppe Hardware next door, is simply unbearable — and indefensible.

Learning Tap or Laying Eggs?

Learning Tap or Laying Eggs?

Hardware Americana

Hardware Americana

The grocery store to which I’ve given so much of my life offers a further example, one dating a few decades. The blame, I regrettably confess, lies not with present proprietor Ray Wajda, but with my antecedents, who replaced an incredible Victorian structure, burnt to a crisp in the late 1940s, with an all too unexceptional post-war grocery store. Find the original building here (and try not to vomit as you stumble through the prose) and the current monstrosity here. I note that, originally, the post-fire structure was no more insufferable than any similar building, and at least continued to meet the sidewalk. However, tired of damage done to the great plate-glass windows by children’s bikes, my great-uncles (I think!) opted to cover the glass-and-brick façade with that horrendous material now dressing the store; the giant plasticky “awning” I simply cannot explain.

Far more problematic than the civic disrespect shown by businesses (Certainly, this is not limited to the locals; quite contrarily, as we all know, the placeless giants positively thrive on flipping the proverbial middle finger to the public realm.) is the disregard shown to aesthetics by civic institutions, both governmental and private. In North Judson, three instances stand out.

1. Our civic center, home to the police department and setting of civic meetings. Though hardly grandiose, it previously was an appropriately humble, attractive local-government building, perfect for a Mayberry-esque burg in rural Indiana. (This holds true, at least, for the building’s anterior: The police garage, added to the rear of the building, makes for an absolutely abysmal view from our wonderful WPA park, Norwayne Field, our closest approximation to a town square, painstakingly renewed in the 1990s.)

We're just kidding when we say "civic".

We're just kidding when we say "civic".

The town building sits next to our Carnegie library, and the two complemented each other well. Until, that is, in an effort, understandable enough in itself, to permit less heat to escape through poorly sealed doors, our community leaders decided, rather than to spend a few more dollars to replace the doors with a more efficient entrance, to block it with cheap, too-bright siding that simply does not match, equally out-of-place windows (too small, with disproportionately small “decorative” shudders, to boot!), and a bench wholly useless to the public except immediately before and after meetings. (Boy, I sure am tired! I’d like to sit down; how about I ascend those steps, first?!) How better to show your contempt for those who elect you, whom you ostensibly serve, than to add to the denigration of their public realm?

Our Carnegie North Judson-Wayne Township Library

Our Carnegie North Judson-Wayne Township Library

2. The Masonic Lodge. I wish I had a photograph (I apologize, I should note, for the terribly amateur photography herein: I still refuse to purchase a digital camera, had no interest in lugging about my 35mm, and, so, resorted to my phone.) of the building that came down a few years ago. In truth, it was hardly spectacular: Thirty-some years ago, the Masons, dedicated to bettering their community as they are, probably in an attempt to stymie rising heating bills, bricked over their windows, thereby greeting those coming toward downtown from the east with an unfriendly gesture of totalitarian architecture. Finally giving up on what likely was a rundown lodge, they demolished it and, with much volunteer help, erected a new meeting hall. Now, I appreciate that construction ain’t cheap, but, surely, somehow, those nefarious anti-papists (I jest!) could have done better than this:

How Queer: No Masonry Required!

How Queer: No Masonry Required!

3. Finally, the newest visual assault, our in-the-works firehouse. The present station is far from exceptional, and that it needs to be replaced in undeniable: The roof is in terrible shape, mold has infected the interior, and its eventual destruction could pave the way, one hopes (perhaps too idealistically), for, ultimately, the removal of the water building, police garage, and water tower from the space — all in the name of complementing Norwayne Field with a small park (as once stood where the station now sits) or some other sort of civically pleasing addition. However, when I wrote a letter, on Ray’s Super Foods’ behalf, in support of the fire department’s request for grant money to make possible the construction of a new home, I had no idea that our community “leaders” would seek the lowest common denominator.

The Acceptable Current Station

The Acceptable Current Station


In one respect, notwithstanding the clear view the gap-toothed nature of Lane Street affords of this disaster, that the town has placed it off of the main drag, on land generously donated by a former businessman, pleases me. However, the urban planner within rarely fails to accompany me on these walks; long ago, I decided that I want, even at the cost of demolishing one of the senior-citizen apartments along Main St., to extend Railroad Street all the way to Main, and to extend the cross-streets from “downtown”, thereby creating additional blocks, ready to go when I succeed in turning North Judson into a small slice of thriving rural paradise. Thank you, perspicacious, short-sighted town leaders!
Our Atrocious Pole-Barn Fire House, Visible Through A Lane Street Gap

Our Atrocious Pole-Barn Fire House, Visible Through A Lane Street Gap


Again, I realize that building attractive stores, homes, and civic buildings costs more than most businesses, organizations, and government agencies in North Judson easily can afford. But I can’t shake from my mind the comment my grandfather, who is more than cognizant of the worthlessness of the dollar, especially relative to its value in his youth (Thank you, Federal Reserve!), made a couple of weeks ago: “Why is it that buildings today are so ugly, when they made such better buildings a hundred years ago? They didn’t have a lot of money.” Yes, finances play a part. However, deep down, the problem is more a symptom of cultural enervation, of the death of the public realm and community spirit, than it is of perpetual residence in or near the red. We need to demand more of our civil servants, of our entrepreneurs, and of our civic organizations. We need to demand more of ourselves, because we owe it to ourselves, to our forbears, and to our children. My great-grandfathers wouldn’t recognize the dump that their once-bustling, quasi-idyllic railroad town has become; I’d prefer that my descendants — should I have any and, God willing, should I see fit to raise them here — never have to experience a home so obviously torn apart by the predilections toward deracination, the cheap-and-easy, and the transient inherent in American “culture”.

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4 Responses

  1. My thoughts exactly! Like you, I have never ceased to wonder why our ancesters, who had less resources, money, and even technology, could create such lovely buildings. I think the fact that they had to use honest materials, wood, brick, stone, etce, and no {God save US} vinyl siding, etc. helped. But a certain kind of common cultural knowledge was involved too. I have seen plantation houses in the South that were built by workman, who were often illiterate. All of them just “knew” how to build a house, and what came out from the cooperation was often lovely. Even something as mundane as a chicken coop, often had grace in it’s design.Very little plans were used. Now we have AUTO CAD, TECHNOLOGY, and FINANCING, etc, and other niceties of the modern age, and we can’t build a building that won’t make your eyes hurt, when you look at it. I live in the Ozarks of Missouri, and while we have our share of ugliness, fortunately, most places were not wealthy enough to tear down anything, untill recently. Now such architecture is valued, so it is being preseved in most of the small towns here.

  2. […] 9, 2009 · No Comments I found this through Post Right, a blog through the American Conservative (not that I subscribe, it just came […]

  3. […] would construct buildings so atrocious that one easily would mistake them for anything but. (See here about architectural ineptitude in North Judson.) This is saddening. Notwithstanding the very real […]

  4. […] pontificated incessantly on conservative New Urbanism, but usually only in abstract ways. In “Architecture, the Public Realm, and Small-Town America”, for the first time, I’ve applied it to real-life circumstances, to an actual place, my […]

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