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”.


Better than folding socks

Struggling to sleep tonight, I had afore me two options: I could match my socks — always a vexing ordeal (Where do those wandering socks go when they leave their partners cuckolded?) — or I could read further in Wendell Berry’s The Art of the Commonplace. Persevering, slowly as I do, in my quest to breathe life anew into this humble bastion of young-curmudgeonly thought on the Internet, but, just after three o’clock ante meridiem, unpossessed of the wherewithal to offer thoughts of my own, I thought that I should permit Mr. Berry, the farmer-poet of Lane’s Landing, to speak for me.

If we are serious about reducing government and the burdens of government, then we need to do so by returning economic self-determination to the people. And we must not do this by inviting destructive industries to provide “jobs” in the community; we must do it by fostering economic democracy. For example, as much as possible of the food that is consumed locally ought to be locally produced on small farms, and then processed in small, nonpolluting plants that are locally owned. We must do everything possible to provide to ordinary citizens the opportunity to own a small, usable share of the country. In that way, we will put local capital to work locally, not to exploit and destroy land, but to use it well.

[“Conservation and Local Economy”, page two-hundred-and-four, in The Art of the Commonplace]

Though Berry speaks most specifically of agriculture, and, here, of economics as if people mattered, and I, given the context, wrote of moral fabric, he, more eloquently than I, and I aim for the same target when I, substituting for Mr. Schwenkler, argued, contra Joe Carter, against relying on government at any level, in a federal system or a subsidiarity/sphere of sovereignty system, to cultivate morality. Not only are economic matters and moral fabric not exclusive of each other, but the moral fabric of society, the economic health (and not simply “well-being”) of a place, and the community of that place are all intrinsically interwoven; to separate one strand from the rope is to loosen the entire knot.

Briefly, if we truly believe that small is beautiful, then, as Mr. Berry advises, we must work to cultivate smallness from that level, rather than fatuously assuming that a national government — or the (inter)national economy — , the very antithesis of smallness, can in any meaningful way, other than by negation of policies intrinsically hostile to smallness, contribute to the rebuilding of this agrarian ideal of real, distinct, communities.

Barack Obama and American maturity

Anyone who’s read this web-log, heard me rant about Mr. Obama as the second reincarnation of FDR (perhaps third, if we include the outgoing Mr. Bush), or knows anything about me recognizes that I have no interest in defending or desire to support our almost-president. I laugh, sadly, at those who have partaken of the “change” Kool-Aid, reminding them of then-Senator Obama’s support for, inter alia, the USA PATRIOT Act, the FISA “compromise”, and un-Islamabad-sanctioned raids, from Afghanistan, into Pakistan; I cringe at the thought of his Rooseveltian Fascism.

And yet, I recognize that his election might signify at least a partial maturation of the American electorate. I speak not of his race (Must we continue to wage the “Civil War”, one hundred and forty-some years after its ostensible Appomattox culmination — or must the penultimate and ultimate amendments in the Bill of Rights be eviscerated not only de facto, but de jure as well before we can finally call off the race-hawks?) Rather, reading, finally, Professor Bacevich‘s The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism — which, only forty pages in, I think might be the most important book that I’ve ever read —, I cannot help comparing President Carter’s unheeded, mocked call for Americans, in Bacevich’s words, “[to live] in accordance with permanent values. At least by implication, it meant settling for less” with Obama’s derided proclamation that “We can’t drive our SUVs and eat as much as we want and keep our homes on 72 degrees at all times … and then just expect that other countries are going to say OK. That’s not leadership. That’s not going to happen.”

Mr. Carter lost his campaign for re-election to the “Great Communicator”, of whom Bacevich ably writes,

Reagan portrayed himself as a conservative. He was, in fact, the modern prophet of profligacy, the politician who gave moral sanction to the empire of consumption. Beguiling his fellow citizens with his talk of “morning in America,” the faux-conservative Reagan added to America’s civic religion two crucial beliefs: Credit has no limits, and the bills will never come due.

That this particular comment — or the belief manifested therein — from Mr. Obama played any measurable role in his defeating Mr. McCain is unlikely. However, even as I doubt that, particularly as gas prices have again decreased, erasing from our collective short-term memory the notion that we must, as Mr. Carter advocated thirty years ago, sensibly break our energy dependence, Mr. Obama will having any lasting impact on a perhaps irreparably (save post-Depression?) degraded culture, one of consumption and hyper-individualism-cum-“friendly” statism, I hold on to a wispy, nigh immeasurably small strand of hope that we are, ever slowly, maturing, opening our eyes to the utterly meaningless — and potentially catastrophic — state of being that we have created for ourselves.

Steve Carell: Awesome

Steve Carell has purchased a general store.

He said the purchase was more of an “emotional investment than a business one” and an opportunity to preserve a piece of Americana.

For being part of the “televised America”, Mr. Carell seems to have a wonderful sense of the real America. Good for him!

Economic Piranha

Random post-shower thought this morning:

Bringing a Walmart to town to stimulate economic development is something like replacing two dead fish in a tank with two piranha. They’ll replace the now-defunct life in the environment and, be they one male and one female, may even add additional life. They’ll also eat the other fish who already resided in the tank, remaining alone to occupy the previously full neighborhood.

“Soldier of Misfortune”

From Tuesday’s Post:

[Iraq] was a war with its own original sin: the Bush administration’s failure to provide enough troops. To make up the shortfall, the government chose to outsource responsibility for deciding who can kill and die for the United States to for-profit companies that employed tens of thousands of soldiers-for-hire: mercenaries, or private security contractors, as they were known. The mercenaries developed their own language and subculture, and they fought their own secret battles under their own rules — “Big Boy Rules,” as they called their playbook, with more than a hint of condescension, to distinguish it from the constraints of the military’s formal code. They weren’t counted by our government, alive or dead.

Near the end of the excerpt, the author offers a bitingly poignant remark: “The official American death toll in Iraq that day was 4,047. The number did not change when Jon’s body was identified.”

The thought of American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines dying in this war is harrowing enough; that we have suffered the consequences of this war’s “original sin”, as Steve Fainaru aptly dubs it, is, to me, insufferably tragic and inexcusable.


Mighty Powerful: Professor Deneen on Black Friday

And, today, if we can identify the rampaging “consumers” who killed that poor, poor, undeserving man who sought to open the doors of Wal-Mart for minimum wage on Black Friday, we will exonerate ourselves from any stain that we may all bear in assenting to a culture in which hordes stampede for cheap flat screen televisions and microwaves, convinced that what matters most is what we have, not who we are.

God forgive us all.

Read it all, here. It’s well worth the time, as his conclusion suggests.