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”.

Turning Up Earth, Urban — and Federal — Style

I have a rambling late-night post at Upturned Earth on New Urbanism, wherein I introduce it as something conservatives should embrace and immediately express my serious concern with the post-modern lack of (primarily architectural) context all too common in applied New Urbanist design. I’ve also offered my first post on federalism, here. Be on the look out for more on both subjects.

This is pretty nifty, too.

Vintage Color Photographs of American cities. A tip of the hat to A Welsh View, where Mr Sullivan found the wicked-cool lightning clip.

Post number one on Weyrich and Lind’s Next Conservatism

The American Conservative, in its 12 February 2007 issue, ran an article, titled, simply, “The Next Conservatism”, co-authored by Messrs. Weyrich and Lind, which argued that “By rejecting ideology and embracing “retroculture,” the Right can recover itself and perhaps reverse America’s decline.” I’ve mentioned before that I intend to comment on, at least, a couple of the essays on this Next Conservatism. First, then, I believe that I ought to introduce readers to this fine summary of what Weyrich and Lind contend conservatism must be and become if conservatives wish to remain a) relevant and b) conservative. Numerous excerpts, then, from the AmConMag article follow.

Conservatism has become so weak in ideas that during the presidency of George W. Bush, the word “conservative” could be and was applied with scant objection to policies that were starkly anti-conservative. Americans witnessed “conservative” Wilsonianism, if not Jacobinism, in foreign policy and an unnecessary foreign war; record “conservative” trade and federal budget deficits; major “conservative” expansions of the power of the federal government at the expense of traditional liberties; and nonchalant “conservative” de-industrialization and dispossession of the middle class in the name of Ricardian free trade and Benthamite utilitarianism. No wonder the American people are confused and disillusioned by conservatism if these are its actions when in power. Were Russell Kirk still with us, what would he now call himself?

If conservatism is to be re-established as an intellectual force, and not merely a label for whatever the establishment does to its own benefit, it must first re-awaken intellectually. We need a new conservative agenda.

[ . . .]

If the next conservatism is to reverse this decline and begin to recover the America we knew as recently as the 1950s, the last normal decade, it must do three things. First, it must aspire to change not merely how people vote but how they live their lives. It must lead growing numbers of Americans to secede from the rotten pop culture of materialism, consumerism, hyper-sexualization, and political correctness and return to the old ways of living. The next conservatism includes “retroculture”: a conscious, deliberate recovery of the past.

This recovery should not be, indeed cannot be, imposed through political power. This is the second action the next conservatism must take: putting power in its place. Tolkien’s ring of power is power itself, which in the long run cannot be used for good. The rejection of the counterculture that has become the mainstream culture must proceed bottom-up, person by person and family by family, on a voluntary basis.

[ . . . ]

In summary, then, the next conservatism as we envision it is cultural conservatism, with an agenda both cultural and political, and activity both within and beyond the political process. It seeks to win elections with no less ardor than in 1980 or 1994, but, having perhaps more realistic expectations of what politics can do, it includes a bottom-up, grass-roots movement, similar to the home-schooling movement or the 19th-century temperance movement, devoted to restoring traditional ways of living.

. . . The next conservatism still opposes abortion and supports traditional marriage. It seeks further cuts in marginal tax rates, though it insists on spending cuts as well, and a balanced federal budget. It wants a strong national defense, including missile defense. It demands effective control of our borders, elimination of illegal immigration, a reduction in legal immigration, and effective acculturation of recent immigrants. . . .

But the next conservatism also looks to new situations.

Its agenda should include the abandonment of a Wilsonian foreign policy, which is promoted by neoconservatives and neoliberals alike, and a return to a policy based on America’s concrete interests. . . . [T]hrough most of our history we related to the rest of the world, actively and successfully, through the private means of trade and ideas rather than by playing the game of Great Power. The Founders warned that we could either preserve liberty at home or seek Great Power status but not both. The next conservatism prefers liberty to the trappings of empire.

[ . . . ]

. . . Restoring the Republic requires breaking the monopoly of professional politicians and two parties that are for the most part one party—the Party of I’ve Got Mine. The next conservatism should promote increased use of ballot initiatives and referenda, term limits, putting “none of the above” on the ballot and requiring a new election with new candidates if it wins, and ending legalized bribery under the name of campaign contributions. . . .

Further, the next conservatism should revive the dormant conservative agrarian tradition. As the Amish demonstrate, the small family farm can be economically viable. Organic farming, conservation and restoration of the soil, farmers’ markets and “crunchy cons” should find an honored place in the next conservative agenda. Family farms are good places for children to grow up. While environmentalism is becoming an ideology, conservation and care in the use of God’s creation have long-standing conservative credentials. In turn, agriculture has always been a conservative culture.

Similarly, the next conservatism should include the issue of scale of enterprise. Conservatives have long recognized the danger big government poses to free markets. Is there not a similar threat from big business enterprises, especially when those enterprises are international corporations with no concern for the homeland? Is the market truly free when vast corporations can manipulate prices and politicians to destroy local businesses, both manufacturers and retailers, that are anchored in the local community and contribute to it in ways big companies do not? When everything for sale is labeled “Made in China,” Heaven decrees fair trade instead of free trade.

Another old conservative issue the next conservatism should revive is aesthetics. America may be the richest nation in history, but that has not made it the most beautiful. Strip malls, suburban sprawl, and hollowed-out cities have created an environment few people can love. The New Urbanism offers an alternative that looks to the past to recover traditional designs for towns and cities.* . . .

[ . . .]

So the next conservative movement is just this: a growing coalition of people who are committed to living differently. They share a common rejection of the popular culture, of a life based on wants and instant gratification, and of the ideology of multiculturalism and political correctness. They seek to work with other Americans, and perhaps Europeans as well, who know the past was better than the present and are committed to living as their ancestors did, by the rules of Western culture. They carry their quest into the political arena, lest their enemies mobilize the power of the state to crush them. But they look beyond politics to lives well lived in the old ways, as lamps for their neighbors’ footsteps, as harbingers of a world restored, and as testimonies to the only safe form of power, the power of example. We might add, as gifts to God as well.

*I, as a student of urban planning possessed of a great deal of affinity for the New Urbanism, plan, in particular, to address this. I’ve left out some of the authors’ further comments, from this article, whereto I find myself to stand in contradistinction. I’ll allow the authors to have their say in toto in a post dedicated to this aspect of the Next Conservatism.

I believe, on the whole, that Messrs. Weyrich and Lind offer a more-than-acceptable vision of conservatism, one rooted in tradition (both in the Conservative Tradition, and in the cultural customs and mores of the American people, or, at least, a large segment thereof) and keenly aware of the concerns of the present day: environmental degradation (which, as I noted long ago, Kirk lamented), corporate(-government collusion-caused) distortion of the market, aesthetic debasement, detrimental reliance on the automobile, and so forth. They present a conservative movement welcoming to — meant for — the rest of us: for me, for John Schwenkler, for Rod Dreher, et alios. This is the conservatism of Mark’s hypothetically revived Federalist Party; of Wilhelm Röpke’s nobilitas naturalis, the “moral aristocrats . . . . [B]usinessmen . . . who view the great questions of economic policy unprejudiced by their own . . . interests; . . . journalists who resist temptation to flatter mass tastes or to succumb to political passions. . . .” (Wilhelm Röpke, A Humane Economy, pages one hundred thirty, one hundred and thirty-one)

“New houses are universally horrible, and eco-houses are the most horrible of the lot

With regard to the British Guardian, I generally hold ambivalent, tending toward moderately disdainful, feelings. Via Arts & Letters Daily, though, I discovered a stupendously honest, spot-on piece, from Germaine Greer, lamenting the grotesqueness of the (European) homes that herald modern prosperity and “escape” from the drudgeries of Arcadia.

Vernacular building had the advantage that it had to be done with locally available materials, which pretty much guaranteed that it would harmonise with the landscape.

[ . . . ]

Houses grew uglier as the proportion of architects in the population and their share of the new-build budget grew. New houses are now universally horrible, and eco-houses are the most horrible of the lot. The builders of eco-houses accept as a given the basic shape and dropsical proportions of the two-storey suburban villa, with pitched roofs, end gables, front porch, picture windows, chimneys, and so forth. This may be because local planning authorities demand that they be “in keeping”, even though there is little aesthetic merit in what they are expected to be in keeping with

As evinced by the results adduced by Mistress Greer respecting architecture, as well as the works of Frank Gehry; by the persisting mediocrity of American presidents in the times of un-challenged universal suffrage; and by the distressingly un-impressive results of wide-spread public education(:

[W]hat really counts is what all these people are to read once they have learned how to read. Nor do they seem to have asked themselves whether the standardized educational system by which illiteracy is eradicated was always favorable to a wise choice of reading matter. “The average Englishman” reads garbage “while in Portugal, the state with the highest rate of illiteracy in western Europe, the reading of serious books and journals, per head of population, is much higher than in enlightened England. . . . ” (Russell Kirk, Beyond the Dreams of Avarice [Chicago, 1956], 303-304) – Wilhelm Röpke, A Humane Economy, page fifty-nine.),

that the doctrine of progress has categorically — or, even equivocally –benefitted man-kind, most assuredly, is fact, beyond challenge. If these examples fail to convince the reader of the undeniable benefit of the race to the future, doubtless, that, Sunday after-noon, two of my five companions at a late lunch found their iPhones to be more engrossing than the party’s conversation buttresses the claim sufficiently.