Monday, March 10, 2014

On the Industrial Frontier

Ten years ago the little strip of 37th Street between Morgan and Racine was not broad and smooth and wide open like it is today.

There were more buildings on it -- the Joslyn plant sprawled the whole length of a city block -- and the street itself was narrower.  Its rolling pavement was a ruin of asphalt patches, all broken into potholes and crumbling to gravel, with stretches of the old paving stones showing underneath.  A set of rail tracks ran across it -- they were operational just up to the verge of the street, but the railcars that used it all stopped before crossing.  And somewhere underneath all that ran a very old water main -- it was broken, and it was also legally inaccessible, so it was going to stay broken for awhile.

But my friend John didn’t know that when he bought the three story warehouse at the middle of the street.  He saw industrial heritage and the opportunity to build something new.


I’ve told this story before.  At least the practical version, about the progress of a real estate project. About how John bought it, in 2002, with documents in hand from the city, promising to repair that water main, and from the railroad, detailing their plans for re-activating the track where it crossed the street and ran alongside the loading docks at the back of his building.  The rail siding was a feature central to the interest of the drywall distributor who was going to lease the whole first floor, and pay the rents that would help finance John’s plans to subdivide the other stories into small spaces for metal fabricators, makers and artists.

And how, after he bought it, the railroad’s lawyers squashed the idea of a grade level street crossing – too much liability risk (even though the same tracks run through the middle Racine a few blocks away).  And how the city’s plans to repair the water main were stalled by the significant detail that the city didn’t own the street.  The street was still owned by the company that originally developed the Central Manufacturing District, now a huge multinational, whose lawyers had other things to do than manage the sale of a scrap of street in Bridgeport – an inconvenient bit of industrial heritage.  It would take 3 years before they’d complete the sale and another year for the city to repair the main.

And how John still ploughed forward anyway, doing renovations himself like a really ambitious home improvement project, and attracting tenants, even before there was water, and about the cast of characters who passed through that place, from the outlaws who prowled it before he bought it, to the cast of bikers, missionaries, machinists and other curious parties, including myself, who were drawn in by John’s evolving vision for rebuilding something exciting from waste stream recycled materials, and by his skill for telling a really good story.

For a long time it wasn’t clear if he’d be successful.  He has been.  Though it took him 6 years to finish it, and start looking for the next project, which he found in the Stockyards.  He’s pursuing that one gradually too – time allows synergies to develop.

When I first tried to write about John and his building I had a hard time making a coherent story out of it, because by then I’d already spent 3 years down there, shoveling rocks and hauling debris into dumpsters, and listening to John and all the guys who came through to see what kind of progress he was making.  At night I’d pedal north, exhausted and filthy and weirdly satisfied, and the next morning I’d write down everything I could remember because every detail seemed really important.

Partly I liked it just because in my regular life, I worked at a desk and didn’t have a lot of opportunities to operate simple things like pallet jacks – I thought it was absolutely astounding that even a relatively small person could maneuver loads of material, even machine tools weighing thousands of pounds, across floors and around corners with a simple hand operated device.

But I thought it was a story about everything: the ups and downs of industry, the twists and turns of human ambition, man’s strange relationships with the stuff he manages to accumulate in this world.  There was one scene in particular that stands out in my memory -- it reminds me how the building was an opening, or a lens that made things visible that I couldn’t usually see.  It was a Sunday afternoon spent in the basement, it was cold, like it is now, and beautiful.

When John first bought the building, that basement was like a dungeon.  The windows were covered with plywood, its corners and concrete columns were clotted with cobwebs, the floor was covered with sediment that had been left after he’d pumped an inch of standing water off the floor.

Water would continue to seep back in from a phantom building next door.  When the other building was standing, it had shared drain pipes with the Lowe warehouse; after it was gone, water still entered its old pipes and backed up a drain at the bottom of the elevator shaft in John’s building. Eventually, he’d rent office space to the engineering firm that rebuilt the drainage system for the whole district.  In those early years, though, he was pumping the seepage through a hose that carried it up to a set of plastic drums on the first floor where he’d use it to operate a flush toilet.

Meanwhile, water had seeped into the tank of fluid that ran the hydraulic elevator, turning the oil into a greyish foam that spread through the lines and into the piston that raises and lowers the elevator cage.

On this particular afternoon, John was down there in the elevator pit – where everything was covered with a thick coat of slime that stank of mold and motor oil.  He had clamped a floodlight on the elevator door, which opened horizontally like 2 iron jaws, and the muck at the bottom glistened in the light.  He wasn’t intimidated by the fact he’d never fixed an elevator before – he’d basically do it by taking it apart to see what was inside, and he’d do most of it with nothing but a pipe wrench and a big allen key.

The plywood had been pried off the basement windows, and the sun was streaming in overhead.  I was sweeping sediment off the floor.  It filled the air in a sunlit haze, and the otherworldly chords of a Romanian women’s choir filtered through the space.  Every now and then, John’s voice would rise from out of the pit, exclaiming after he’d opened a line and found it was still in excellent condition inside.

And while we were down there, Santa stopped by.  Santa had been proprietor of Scooter World, a business selling used motor cycle parts that had once occupied at least 2 floors of the building, though he’d lost control of his inventory before John arrived on the scene.  He still came around to see what kind of progress John was making.  He knew a lot about the building – what had broken and how they’d fixed it before.  And if John had some scrap he wanted to get rid of, Santa would take it off his hands.

This afternoon, he fell to chatting about how he’d started Scooter World back in the 1960s, when motor scooters were very popular.  He’d started it as a repair shop, and neighborhood kids would hang around the shop and learn how to fix stuff by watching Santa do it.  He says scooters came out in a new model every year, and you could harvest parts from old bikes people would abandon in the alley when they got new ones.

As his inventory grew, he moved from one space to the next, before arriving at the old Lowe warehouse on 37th Street, where he spread over several floors.  Now Santa looked back with nostalgia on the glory of his inventory, which had whole departments dedicated to seats, or gas tanks or carburetors.  Gesturing around, he described how the basement was filled with wheels from every kind of vehicle, from lawn-mowers to bikes.

Then the guy who owned the building died, and left it to his daughter, and his daughter let her boyfriend Cowboy move in.  Cowboy engaged in a lot of destructive pastimes before he finally went to prison.  Santa said it was for beating an old man to death for the money in his pocket, which turned out to be $37 and change.

But his real complaints about Cowboy came after Santa fell behind in his rent, and Cowboy started selling off his stuff. Because Cowboy didn’t know what anything was worth, or he didn’t care.  He’d sell parts worth hundreds of dollars for a fraction of their value in quick cash.  He’d squandered Santa’s glorious collection, accumulated over decades, it still rankled with Santa now.

After they were both gone, other guys, friends of John’s, would come through that warehouse with new collections.  Their skill sets reflected the era of industry where they’d pursued their careers; it was their collections that reflected what they’d been able to make of it all.  They weren’t accumulations of wealth, in fact they often turned out to be cumbersome objects hung round their owner’s necks, but they were fascinating to look at, to sort through, they seemed to be testament to something – to their owner’s ability to see possibility, though not necessarily their ability to grasp it.

So Santa and Cowboy both came through in the frontier days, the long interim between when the Central Manufacturing District was first built, at the cutting edge of modern industry, and when John arrived a century later to rebuild it for a new industry revival.  In that interim, Cowboy saw a vacuum for a chaotic career on the semi-legal fringe; Santa saw opportunity dealing in other people’s junk, sifting out gradations of value that could only be realized if you were willing to learn what it was all worth to the right buyer.

John’s friend Richard was a machinist.  His employer kept luring him back from retirement because his skill set can’t be hired anymore.  His collections included heaps of stuff you could buy at hardware stores, but also elegant wooden chests filled with antique instruments, sets of drill bits and dyes that had been hand tooled, and a growing collection of machine tools he was buying up at fire sales and hauling to John’s building as more and more businesses shut down – some of them still had appendages from when they were hooked up to steam engines.

His friend Matt’s favorite job had been working for a company that made elaborate props – fiberglass trees that were really waitress stations, things like that.  He wanted John to fill the warehouse with craftsmen who could build objects in any material – wood, glass, metal, fiberglass – and he got him started, referring some of his earliest tenants.  Matt’s collections were accordingly eclectic: boxes of glass lenses the size of saucers, a long tray of beads and semi-precious stones, antique furniture he might someday repair and dozens of wood-framed windows he planned to someday build into a greenhouse.  His friendship with John nearly sank under that collection, he underestimated how much time we spent hauling it back and forth across the floors to get at windows John was replacing, or to core holes where he’d run new plumbing stacks through the floors.

John’s era was in high-tech end of industry.  He built virtual sets for industry trade videos using motion tracking technology originally developed for making smart bombs – it’s probably archaic now, it was a little tenuous back then.  You could build any fabulous set you could imagine, but if the tracking mechanisms lost their place the human talent could appear to go skidding across the virtual carpet, or the whole set would shiver behind their backs.  The industry turned out to be tenuous too – the company John worked for spent millions on bleeding-edge technology they were betting would become standard for the industry, and when it did, the price came down and they found themselves competing with guys working out of their basements.  Eventually, the founder would sell his business to a big media company.

But by then John’s building was up and running with water and utilities, and he’d sorted through a whole range of new age, low tech possibilities – the drywall distributor lost interest when the rail siding fell through, but then the Italian cookie company and the green architects considered moving in, and even though they never did, one by one the glass finisher, the metal workers and the artists started renting.  When the building was fully occupied, he moved on to the next one, which he bought a few blocks away.

That afternoon in the cold, in the basement, when John was banging around the elevator shaft, and the women’s voices filtered through the sun-lit haze, while Santa told wild stories of the frontier days, the whole place hummed with possibility.  It was more vivid because it was built from stuff that was workable with simple tools and human sweat, and because it resonated with the efforts and imaginings of all the guys who’d passed through there before, whether they’d been successful for a time or not.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Modern Jazz and New Vision for the Public Library

Frank Chapman has had a long career as a jazz pianist, playing in the be-bop style of Charlie Parker.  He shakes off the suggestion that jazz is for sophisticates, he says be-bop came out of dance halls.  In fact, he learned to play it in jail, where he found himself as a 19 year old, surrounded by older musicians from Saint Louis and Kansas City.  They’d all been locked up for drug charges, not violent crimes; they passed the time playing modern jazz.

For 30 years after that, Chapman played in New York, the nation’s jazz capital, but he has lived in Bridgeport since 2011, and one day soon, he will perform a show at the Richard J. Daley branch of the Chicago Public Library (3400 S. Halsted).  The date has not been nailed down yet, but it will be the next in a series of music shows for adults that Branch Manager Jeremy Kitchen launched last fall.  It grew out of an experiment in programming at the Chicago libraries.

The explosion of the internet has inspired some creative soul searching among librarians in general.  A public repository of books seems less necessary to supporting a literate public, now that the internet gives easy access to oceans of information.  Libraries have found new roles, like providing digital access, and promoting informational literacy – a step beyond the ability to read, informational literacy includes the ability to find what you want from out of the superabundance, to evaluate and use it.  And the physical library is still a great asset.

Recently, researchers at Heidelberg University ranked 31 world class library systems, from Stockholm to Sao Paulo to Singapore, based on features that contribute to the vitality of the Informational City.  The ranking gave equal weight to features of the digital library (like e-documents and digital reference services) and the physical library (particularly its architectural presence, and its spaces for learning, meeting, play and work -- the book collections weren’t one of the factors on the list).

After all, the Information Age has not been built on media alone.  It is said that the advent of the printing press and the wide circulation of new media helped give rise to a new kind of public sphere.  People began to understand themselves to be part of a common conversation -- they might be geographically dispersed and socially stratified, but they were also participants in the ebb and flow of public opinion.  Books, pamphlets and newspapers made that common conversation possible.  But so did the coffeehouses and clubs where they were debated and discussed.

When the Heidelberg researchers ranked world library systems, the Chicago libraries came out first among the cities in the United States, and third in the world, after Vancouver’s and Montreal’s.  Chicago scored slightly better as a physical library than it did on the digital scale.  That’s testament to decades of capital investment.  Mayor Daley’s Library Commissioner, Mary Dempsey, enjoyed overseeing the construction or renovation of 44 libraries in the 75 branch system.

Then Mayor Emanuel came in on a promise to be tough about the budget, and he seemed to see the library as an easy target for cuts.  He first proposed to make half his staffing cuts from library personnel, even though library operations represented just 3% of the city budget.  Commissioner Dempsey resigned.  Emanuel picked an IT executive from the San Francisco library system to replace her.

But Commissioner Brian Bannon has shown no interest in replacing Chicago’s physical libraries with a cheaper collection of e-books. Several of his technology projects make spaces for new patrons, like the YOUMedia Center for teens, and the MakerLab, a temporary skunkworks project that won a Chicago Innovation Award last year.

In fact, Bannon has outsourced a big piece of the library’s IT work, signing a 3 year contract with BiblioCommons to maintain a state of the art digital catalog system.  He told Library Journal that the contract wouldn’t just provide a better catalog, it would cut the need for in house technical expertise so librarians could spend more time curating the collections and engaging the community.

In June, the CPL Foundation won a million dollar grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to try a more innovative way to develop library programs, in partnership with a firm called IDEO, and the Aarhus Library system in Denmark.  Aarhus is a city a tenth the size of Chicago, but it’s known worldwide in library circles for its progressive programs.  IDEO is a high profile innovation consultancy known for its “design thinking” approach.

Design thinking explores what people want, and how they actually use things, and proceeds by trial and error: you don’t spend months analyzing a problem and drafting an ideal solution, you start by brainstorming a bunch of ideas, trying them out, discarding the ones that don’t work without wasting too much time on them, and building on the ones that do.

Jeremy Kitchen has been particularly active with the library’s experimental programs.  He served as children’s librarian at the Richard J. Daley Branch in Bridgeport for 7 years; he was promoted to Branch Manager shortly before Commissioner Bannon was hired in early 2012.  Last summer, Kitchen was part of a team who traveled to a library conference in Aarhus, and got a glimpse of the Danish model firsthand.  Some of Aarhus’ innovations deploy digital technology in new ways.  But Kitchen says what struck him most was the role the libraries played as community space.

The Danes stood back to reassess the purpose of their libraries too, back in 2010, which was also a time of budget cutbacks.  They determined they wanted their libraries to cultivate a society of innovation to further Denmark’s globalization goals.  Libraries would be places of learning, but also places of creative inspiration, fueled by participation in arts and performance, and just by putting patrons into contact with other people who might have different tastes and opinions than their own.

Under the Gates Foundation grant, the Chicago libraries tried 3 prototype projects with broadly similar aims.  Kitchen organized one of them at the Daley Branch in collaboration with the Valentine Boys and Girls Club: it was a sort of creative projects fair for teens.  The library auditorium was set up with stations where the kids could try different activities.  Some involved technology – like a station with musical instruments and music apps that are available free on the internet.  Kitchen says the most popular stations were analog – like the electric typewriter with a long scroll of paper in it, where people could add a sentence or two on an Exquisite Corpse style narrative.

Since then, Kitchen and the team have continued to take the design thinking model on the road, trying out projects at branch libraries in other neighborhoods.  In one of them, a group of teenage boys took selfies.  That was at Legler Library in West Garfield Park - one of the city’s grandest regional libraries at the center of one of its most dangerous neighborhoods.  The teens were all tattooed.  So is Kitchen -- his forearms are covered with colorful kid-friendly designs from his days as a children’s librarian, including a gentle looking giraffe, and a unicorn with a balloon.  They ended up trading stories and documenting their tattoos.

Though “documenting” suggests a structured purpose, Kitchen emphasizes the project was deliberately unstructured because the point is not to recreate an instructional environment like school.  The point is to engage the kids in a project they want to do, to encourage them to see the library as a resource they want to use, even as a safe place to hang out.

Kitchen, who was once a social worker, says the young men who came in for the project don’t have a safe place to hang out – they’re immersed in an environment where one bad decision, their own or someone else’s, could change their lives at any time.  His description of the way their surroundings limit their lives hints at the value the library could have if it could open a sense of access to a broader sphere.

Media alone doesn’t do that – the kids already have access to media.  Last summer Wired magazine published a feature about how social media helps inflame gang violence in Chicago neighborhoods, it can just tie people in to a vicious feedback loop.  We all need some sense of a larger world, a sphere of possibility that extends beyond the place we’re standing at any given moment.  The Danish model of the physical library as an inspirational space seems to aim for something like that.

Back at the Daley Branch, Kitchen says the idea to open the auditorium as a neighborhood performance space was directly inspired by his visit to Aarhus.  The music shows aren’t curated performances that the public ought to hear; they are an opportunity for a creative neighborhood exchange.  The first show, in October was by Fast Decay, a punk band from Back of the Yards.  Kitchen says 50-60 people attended, including small children and senior adults – many of whom would probably never hear punk rock in its usual habitats.

Next, you’ll have the opportunity to hear Frank Chapman perform modern jazz.  It sounds like a promising show, whether you’re already a jazz fan, or just open to hearing something new.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Making the Neighborhood Safe to Cure Meat

In the coming weeks, the garages and cold basements of Bridgeport will be hung with sopressata.  Hundreds, even thousands of pounds of it will dry cure in cold air in an age old preservation technique.  And as it cures, John Schultz will re-calculate the future of Mr. Spanky’s, his restaurant at Shields and 31st Street, where he’s been selling dry cured bacon from locally raised hogs for just over a year.

A few months ago, the bacon business was so good Schultz was looking for ways to expand production and sell through other outlets, but he was challenged by a regulatory environment geared for the mass production of big food.   Now he’s shuttered the restaurant for the season, and is just running his catering business, which delivers fresh salads under the name Foodism Chicago.

If you miss Mr Spanky’s well cured pork, you can taste it again downtown, where he’ll be selling pork buns, bacon and breakfast sausage at The Nosh, a roving Chicago food market designed to promote small batch, artisanal food.  The Nosh will be held at Block 37 every Thursday and Friday in February and March.

Schultz knows his career is in wholesome local foods, but he is still exploring the best way to make it a business that supports a sustainable life.  He grew up in a restaurant family in Joliet, and he crossed the country as chef for the Ringling Brother’s Circus.  He first opened his catering company at 335 West 31st Street 9 years ago.

About 5 years ago, he started making bacon from his house.  He could accommodate up to 100 pounds of meat a week there, which dried down to 50 pounds of finished bacon.  At first he was selling it at farmer’s markets on Saturdays and Sundays, but before long he was selling all 50 pounds at one market.  It was either scale back to fewer markets, or scale up with more meat.

Through connections of a former employer, he gained access to the banquet kitchen of the Irish American Cultural Center, where he was working with 400 – 500 pounds of meat a week.  He says he could take in 1,000 pounds a week in the space he has at Mr. Spanky’s, if he took out a wall and had a bigger cooler.  But space and a willing customer base aren’t the only considerations.

Spanky’s has been making bacon as a restaurant, which allows Schultz to sell food he makes directly to the end consumer.  In order to sell it through someone else, through another restaurant or a grocery store for instance, he would have to be licensed as a processor by the Illinois Department of Agriculture.  The State says it tries to be flexible, it looks for end results, like the washability of surfaces, the smooth flow of product, water, and air through the facility, but Schultz says that would still translate into rules about the size of his drains and the material on his floors, and he’d have to develop a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) plan – a test-validated manual of sanitary practice specific to his facility that can cost $10s of thousands to create.

Schultz looked at hiring someone else who had already obtained licensing to process his meat.  He says there are 3 or 4 processors in Illinois who share his interest in sustainable food and do the kind of dry curing he’d like them to do, but they are at capacity making their own product.  In the end he found a family owned enterprise that has been curing bacon with traditional techniques for generations, and will use his recipes to prepare his product – but he had to go to Kentucky to find them.

He still gets his pork from a small Illinois farm.  He has developed a relationship with his farmer, so he can buy just the parts he wants.  He says it took him 5 years to get there, for the first 4 years he had to buy the whole hog, or a whole side of a hog.  He’d make bacon from the bellies, and make a lot of sausage from the rest.  He suspects that effectively caps the market for local, sustainably raised meat into the future - most people don’t have the freezer capacity to buy a whole animal at a time, they need a middle man to cut up the carcass and distribute the parts.

Schultz’s experience pretty much sums up what people mean when they talk about building an infrastructure, not just a market, for sustainable local food.  In Chicago, that agenda will be advanced a little further at the Good Food Festival and Conference, which will convene at the UIC Forum March 13th- 16th.  Now in its 10th year, the Conference aims to build the unromantic but necessary structures to support growing demand for sustainably produced local foods: making connections between investors and small food business, building wholesale distribution chains to bring local food to market, and advocating revisions to a regulatory structure built to supervise mass production, so that it can monitor small producers effectively, without squashing them.

A couple years ago, participants on a panel of farmers and marketing companies that sell locally raised meat all seemed to agree that the biggest brake on the growth of the market for their product was a bottleneck in the processing and distribution parts of the chain.  Those middle segments have been emerging.  In Chicago, a handful of small butcher shops have been joined by Red Meat Market, an online hub where meat buyers and end consumers can source local, sustainable meat.

On-line and off-line forums buzz about how web based marketing can be supplemented by a network of meat hubs that would aggregate product, and facilitate its travel between producers, processors, distributors and buyers in real space.  For that network is to continue to grow, regulators will have to allow it.  There is some disagreement about what, if any, special considerations that would require.

For instance, people have been curing meat with salt and dry air for hundreds, even thousands of years.  Residents of Bridgeport seem to consume great quantities of home cured sausage without getting sick.  But that doesn’t mean salt curing can’t go wrong.  Salt slows the growth of bacteria by taking water out of the meat.  But some pathogens are salt tolerant, and salt levels in the product must be sufficient to stop bacteria growth.

Few would argue they don’t want the food they buy from someone else to be monitored at all.  According to Food Safety News, makers of cured meats should monitor pH levels, water activity, and the potential for cross contamination between foods in a kitchen.  But do they need a fully validated HACCP plan?  When Madison, Wisconsin based Underground Meats launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to create a HACCP plan for making dry cured salami, they estimated it would cost $40,000.

Underground Meats developed their first HACCP plan with help from food scientists at Madison based Oscar Mayer.  They launched their Kickstarter campaign in September to develop an open sourced plan that could serve as a template for other small salami makers.  HACCP plans must be specific to each operation, they can’t be borrowed wholesale, even by makers of the same product.

But as Underground Meats told Food Tech Connect -- big producers regularly share their HACCP information, it’s the smaller ones that keep their plans proprietary because of the disproportionate expense. Underground Meats hopes its open source plan will level the playing field for small operations, and build community among producers and farms.

As that community grows, leveling the playing field may mean more hybrid enterprise, combining the functions of a restaurant and processor like Mr. Spanky’s has hoped to do, for instance.  It might also pave the way for some of Bridgeport’s sopressata to make its way out from the garage.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

A Digression, On How I Got Here

Over Thanksgiving, I saw my friends Paul and Lisa, who are rebuilding a brick cottage they bought out in Garfield Park a couple years ago.  Real Estate is an awful lot cheaper out there.  Paul bought the cottage for $25,000.  He's spent evenings and week-ends since he bought it straightening out one of the exterior walls and building the inside back in.  In the meantime, he's picked up some other properties as opportunities present themselves, including the vacant lot next door to this cottage, and a 2 flat on the next block – most recently he bought himself a car wash.

Back before the crash, our mutual friend TC bought a graystone a few blocks away from where Paul's buying now.  He got jumped twice while living over there, and took to carrying a knife and a bottle of bear mace.  Paul, who rented a room from him for the better part of a year before moving to a live-work studio with Lisa, says TC's graystone was in a different situation.  There was a scrap metal dealer behind it, and a heroin dealer with political connections installed in the house at the end of the block.  Junkies would haul scrap to the metal dealer for cash and stroll by on their way to the drug dealer's house.

Paul's new 2 flat has an open air drug market out front, and the previous owner cut a trap door into the front porch to discourage scavengers and squatters from trying to break in.  But Paul says if you approach from the alley, which is still paved in Belgian block, it looks quaint; he says this part of the neighborhood is relatively safe. 

The drug market is a drive through operation, and the dealers operate as quietly as they can.  There was a shooting incident last year, but that was over a dice game in front of the corner store.  Someone lost a lot of money and the other players were making fun of him, so he got a gun and shot 6 of them.  There were no fatalities.  Since everyone knew who the gunman was the police scooped him up pretty quickly.

But for the most part, Paul says his neighbors are all quiet homeowners, many of them elderly people who bought their houses when the neighborhood first turned black.  They greet Paul and Lisa by name when they see them on the street.  Now, he sees other young professionals who can't afford to buy in places like Bucktown and Logan Square buying cheap property on the Garfield Park frontier.

Paul’s efforts to establish himself out there got me thinking about the urban frontier, and the nature of the opportunities out there.  And even though I don’t live on the frontier by any definition, it reminded me of how I got here myself.

I first moved to Chicago in 1990 – a year that would seem significant later, in terms of the urban frontier.  Superficially though, I was preoccupied with an entirely different set of issues at the time. I came to attend divinity school, to study early Christian history.  I had big ideas about what that would entail.  I imagined it would mean tracing out patterns in the expression of human consciousness. 

The Hellenistic era, when Christianity emerged, was a time of exceptional religious ferment, and of tectonic shifts in people’s sense of where they stood in the world.  At least 20th century scholars often described it that way.  They saw parallels to tectonic shifts they’d witnessed themselves.

They would say the world had been a smaller place before the Hellenistic era.  In the ancient world, the earth had been a finite plane.  The heavens stretched over it like a dome, encircling its horizons.  Within that enclosure, people had a clear sense where they were, they were generally confident they were standing at the center of the world.

Each particular society exerted more influence over its members under the old world order, because they lived their entire lives without leaving it.  Their religious experience was more socially defined too, expressed in collective rituals more than in personal pieties.  So much so that individuals didn’t need to believe their own souls were immortal.  After death they might pass to some shadowy underworld where they’d chatter in the darkness like flocks of bats, seething in a cave.  But overhead, under the sun, their gods guaranteed the lasting welfare of the society where they had lived their lives.

Alexander’s armies rattled their confidence in these things.  Or the empires that followed would do it, because there had been conquests before.  The armies proved their gods weren’t all powerful, but the Greek and Roman empires unified vast territories under a common administration of law, and taxation, run by an elite who all spoke Greek, and circulated from one city to the next.  These things supported a more cosmopolitan culture than the world had seen before.  Travel was made easier, trade flourished and communication flowed more freely.

 Globalization was stimulating, but it was also unsettling.  It was hard to claim you were established at the center of the world from out in the provinces of someone else’s empire.  And the terrestrial dislocations were magnified by astrological ones.  The heavenly dome broke open, people came to understand the position of the earth within a much larger construction of planets and stars, moving overhead in ascending spheres.   The atmosphere below the moon had been shown to be more unreliable, the pull of the planets seemed more complex and sinister, the brilliant realm of the stars much further away.

 People’s minds were altered, and they flocked to new forms of religion to orient themselves.  Cults promising personal transformation, sometimes even immortality, spread like nervous energy among  people dislodged from the safety of their enclosed societies.

I first heard all this from a professor named David Ulansey – I remember him as a trim man with a tonsure of dark hair and expressive eyes who dressed in the same neat uniform every day: blue oxford shirt and a tie, with dark blue pants.  He had just made his reputation piecing together a credible account of the Mithraic mystery cult.

The Hellenistic mystery cults promised salvation by initiation into transformative secrets, many of which have been lost to history.  But the cult of Mithras left subterranean sanctuaries across the frontiers of the Roman Empire, preserving the cult’s distinctive iconography.  The central image inside those sanctuaries was the “tauroctony,” or bull slaying, in which Mithras stands over a bull, stabbing it in the neck with a dagger.

Ulansey had come to the conclusion that the tauroctony represented an astral phenomenon called the precession of the equinoxes, which had been discovered by a Greek astronomer not long before the Mithraic cult made its appearance.  He described this answer unfolding itself gradually, yielding to years of careful research, with all the small details falling into place around this central discovery.  The strength of this his argument was not just in his command of the historical particulars, but the imaginative charge of the whole thing: you could believe that discovery had transformative power.

Hellenistic people, uneasy in their new universe, were drawn to astral cults that promised to teach the secrets their souls would need to pass through the spheres of the cosmic apparatus, shedding layers of their mortal flaws, and slipping out from the demonic powers that rule the earth, to contemplate perfection from among the stars.  The discovery that the equinoxes change would have rattled the whole thing: it meant that the realm of the fixed stars is not really fixed; it meant the whole cosmic structure moved in a new direction, motivated by a previously unknown force.  In secret initiations conducted underground, Ulansey argued, that force was revealed as Mithras, Kosmokrator.

Years later, I’d learn that Ulansey had wandered off from academia not too long after his book on the Mithraic Mysteries came out. He would write that he had fallen into a depression, because all his most compelling ideas were dismissed as too speculative by his academic peers.  So he moved to California where he teaches courses in cosmology and consciousness at an Institute of Integral Studies.

The ancient dislocations he described still remind me what Chicago seemed like when I first moved here -- vast and unnavigable.  The effect was probably magnified by the hour when I arrived, because the city’s population was still waning, its traditional economy contracting, its neighborhoods going back to prairie in spreading patches.  Especially its south side neighborhoods and the west side ones – preparing for new waves of opportunity, it turns out.  But back then, no one knew for sure that the people would come back, not in 1990, when the murder tally was approaching 1,000 a year and the population kept dropping every time the census came in.

I’d moved to Hyde Park, a leafy academic enclave that was surrounded by acres of decimated ghetto we were sometimes warned to avoid, at least until we got our bearings.  But it wasn’t just the poverty close by that was unnerving, I thought it was the novelty of the streetscape.  Compared to the quaint, crooked little city I’d just come from, Chicago was relentlessly rectilinear, the ground was flat, the buildings were plain brick boxes, almost without ornament, the streets laid out on a grid.  As you learn it, it resolves into neighborhoods, each one distinct from the others.  But on arrival, it looked like mile upon mile of the same sort of thing.

I remember thinking it was more profane than where I’d come from.  It was a term I’d learned from History of Religions. The opposite of “the sacred,” as used to great effect by a Romanian scholar who had made the Chicago school of History of Religions famous.  His name was Mircea Eliade.  He had just died, 4 years before I got to Chicago, and the fact he was Romanian was turning out to be important.

At the time though, what impressed me was his Homo Religiosus, a distant cousin of modern man.  Religious Man craves reality: he wants to center his life around it, participate in it.  But he is painfully aware most of the world is not real in any navigable sense.  Time plods senselessly forward, wearing him out; the landscape spreads out in all directions, a wilderness, indifferent, uninhabitable.

 But on occasion, reality boils up in the desert.  Eliade called it heirophany, the appearance of the sacred, the eruption of something vivid and real from out of the vast profane.  To Religious Man, it seems that place is the center of the world, the point of the cosmic axis that connects earth with heaven.  He’ll build his home at that place, or he’ll establish a temple, or found a city.  Build a wall around it.  Outside, the world dissolves into incoherence.

One example Eliade used to illustrate the orienting power of heirophany was a sad tale about the Achilpa people, a nomadic clan of the Australian outback.  The Achilpa did not settle in one sacred place and call it the center, they carried their cosmic axis with them in the form of a tall pole, made from the wood of a gum tree. As long as they had it, they could always communicate with heaven and re-establish themselves.  But then the pole was broken in a tragic accident.  Disoriented, no doubt despairing, the entire troupe simply lay down and waited for death to overtake them.

Homo Religiosus experienced time differently from modern people too.  Eliade claimed that all religious rituals repeat some original act of creation.  And they are not just a sentimental memory of the event, they effectively re-enact it, canceling the damage done by time, and restoring the world to its original condition.  He’d write about the “terror of history” and wonder how humanity has been able to tolerate it.  Modern man chases after history, trying to make his mark; homo religiosus obliterates it over and over again, in an eternal return to the time of creation.

As a Romanian, Eliade had been born in a small country on the eastern frontier, of Europe – on the crossroads of empires.  Through the centuries, it had been overrun by the Romans, the Huns, the Franks, the Ottoman Turks.  Eliade was born in 1907, his father and his uncles were military men who fought in the First World War, when Romania was a battleground for larger powers once again.  At the end of it though, Romania came out reunited with contested territories, and with a new sense of national purpose.

Eliade believed his generation had an important destiny: they would define a distinctly Romanian culture, one that could take its place on the world stage.  He believed Romania’s great cultural disadvantage had been that it could not boast a medieval history.  The great Western nations could all do that, but only because they’d been lucky to have a handful of literate men who’d recorded it.  On the other hand, if Romania didn’t have a written history, it had something more fundamental, it had a proto-history, preserved in the oral traditions of its folklore, the myths and symbols of the Romanian peasantry, much of it reflecting their immersion in the rhythms of nature.

 Eliade spent the Second World War in Western Europe, serving in posts with the Romanian embassy, first in London, then in Lisbon.  His diaries from Lisbon describe his despair as Soviet troupes encircled the Romanian army at the Battle of Stalingrad.  He lamented the short sightedness of Westerners who wished for the defeat of the Germans -- he thought they were naïve about the Stalinist Soviets, he thought the Nazi army was defending the West against the modern day Turks, the Asian hordes that had crossed Romania and menaced Europe before.

 Eliade came out of the Second World War with a more radical cultural project than when he went in.  He saw that his destiny was not in Romania, championing the particular heritage of the Romanian peasantry, but in the west, where he would look for universal patterns in religious experience that were common to all humanity, at least before the corruptions of modernity.  And he realized that destiny.  He became an academic superstar, his Homo Religiosus defined the field of History of Religions for decades after the war.

 Even as Eliade’s international stature grew, other post-war scholars, trying to understand how Nazism exerted such appeal, would point to a German cultural project not unlike his proto-history.  It valorized an indigenous culture of the German peasant, still retrievable through folklore, a culture that reflected their genetic connection to the native landscape. The project comforted a populace left disoriented in a rapidly urbanizing, industrializing society, giving them a venerable folk tradition to grasp hold of.  The Germans also used it to summon up a common ethnic identity to unify the fractured German states into a single nation, an ethnic identity that would later be taken to sinister extremes.

Eliade died in 1986.  When I moved to Chicago in 1990, his intellectual heirs were taking him down from his pedestal.  His Lisbon diaries hadn't been found yet, but people were asking questions about what Eliade had been up to in Romania between the wars.  They wanted to know about his relationship with the fascist Iron Guard – did they just share a romantic view of Romanian peasant and his native culture, or did they share more than that?  And if Eliade was a fascist, maybe Homo Religiosus was susceptible to fascist ideology in some fundamental sense.

A lot of it sounded like guilt by association and subtle attacks by innuendo.  But there were complaints about his method, too.  They’d say in his search for sweeping patterns he’d played loose with the particulars.  The Achilpa didn’t really lie down to die because when their sacred pole broke, they’d lost congress with heaven and could not navigate the world.  A closer reading of the source material makes it sound like they died from embarrassment when they came to a meeting place and their pole was shorter than those of all the other clans.

The context was clarified by JZ Smith, one of Eliade’s Chicago colleagues, who had found that the original story about the Achilpa with the broken pole was not about the importance of establishing a cosmic “center,” or an axis to communicate with heaven.  It was a story about maintaining a connection with ancestors whose travels had marked the landscape.  But it was still a story about making the world navigable, by making it a coherent, meaningful place.

Other critics would make more radical critiques of the way Eliade privileged myth and symbol over collective ritual practice -- the individual’s quest for meaning over religion’s more social functions.  Some would question whether religion constitutes a real category outside of the experience of Western scholars who invented the field.

I wandered off from divinity school 20 years ago, but I still find myself going back every few years to read a little Eliade, and to see what his critics have to say.  Because whatever his failings as a historic figure, Homo Religiosus still carries an imaginative charge.  Not that the particular ways he tries to orient himself sound realistic, or even appealing.  But as a mirror image of modern man, who is still out wandering the landscape without a cosmic pole.

Secular man still craves reality, or at least he’s always talking about it.  It’s just that he seems to pursue in by chasing whatever’s new in the world, and scrambling for the peripheries.  He’d like nothing more than to live in history, even as it accelerates, making his chances of making a lasting impression on it slimmer every year.  So he climbs Everest and treks the desert, he seeks out the remotest societies he can find, looking for a native culture that’s still authentic, or trying to jar himself out of his comfort zone.

At least, those experiences are often glorified in lifestyle magazines.  They may not be the way most people really live their lives.  But the same spirit has been familiar for a long time in our romance with the American frontier.

Years ago, when I was a student in Ulansey’s class, I wrote a term paper comparing Eliade’s religious man, who clings to the center, with Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous essay about the frontiersman, and his significance in American history.  My paper was probably a naïve lament about how our restless pursuit of new frontiers shows our shameless thirst for the profane.

Now I see it differently though.  The frontier seems more like the image of the center, reflected in reverse.  For one thing, it has turned out to be eternally recurring; for another, it still promises to connect us with an experience that’s vital and real.

In 1893 when Turner wrote his essay, the US census had just declared it could no longer identify a frontier line, marked by a certain population density on the edge of settled territory, and would no longer include the “frontier settlement” as a category in its reports.

For Turner, this was a historic moment of great significance.  Up to that point, it was the frontier that had given rise to the culture and institutions that have made us distinctly American.  It did this partly because it offered distance from the old world, freedom from old customs, laws and institutions.  And partly because the encounter with the savage exerted a stimulating influence on the creation of new ones.  The frontier fed our vital forces, as the landscape and the cycles of nature were said to feed the vital folk cultures of Europe.

Or, as Turner had concluded, “What the Mediterranean Sea was to the Greeks, breaking the bond of custom, offering new experiences, calling out new institutions and activities...” so the western frontier had been to us.  “And now, four centuries from the discovery of America, at the end of a hundred years of life under the Constitution, the frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history.”

Except that now, a hundred years after the frontier was declared gone, we are still establishing new ones.  Paul and Lisa do not describe themselves as frontiersmen, so I hope they won’t take offense that I’m describing them that way.  There is real offensive potential in it - it evokes old tropes of civilization evolving from an encounter with savagery, it insults their neighbors who have made homes in their neighborhood for decades, it dismisses the ways cycles of disinvestment that create frontier opportunities also blight whole generations of human lives.

To be in a position to take advantage of the new opportunities, to buy property in an undervalued neighborhood is a way to build wealth, and establish your position in society.  But the romantic language evokes the way the opportunity to establish a foothold, a place to stand and orient yourself, also means a lot more than that.  Whether it’s done on an urban frontier, or in a place like Bridgeport, at the center of the world.