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
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
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
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
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 first appeared. He
described this answer unfolding itself gradually, yielding to years of careful
research, with all the small details falling into place around this central connection. The strength of this Ulansey's argument was not
just in his command of the historical particulars, but the imaginative charge
of the whole thing: you could believe that ancient 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 heavens,
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
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. The Romanian's 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
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,
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
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
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
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 cheered 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
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
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
portrait, Eliade's Homo Religiosus still carries an imaginative charge. Not that the particular ways he's said to have oriented himself sound entirely credible, or appealing. But as a mirror image of Modern Man, who is
still out wandering the landscape without a cosmic pole.
Homo Saecularis still craves reality, or
at least he’s always talking about it.
It’s just that he seems to pursue it 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
At least, those experiences are
often glorified in lifestyle magazines.
They may not be the way most people really live their lives.
Years ago, as 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 significance of the American Frontier. I remember that paper as an embarrassing lament about how
Modern Man's restless pursuit of new frontiers shows our unabashed thirst for the
I wouldn't describe it that way now. Twenty years on, the Frontier doesn't look so much like the opposite of Eliade's center, it's more like it's image in the mirror. For one
thing, it's 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 that spurred 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 the Americans. “And now, 4 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 Western Frontier was closed, we are still establishing new ones.
Paul and Lisa do not describe
themselves as frontiersmen out in Garfield Park. In fact, applying the word "frontier" to Garfield Park brings out insulting connotations. 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
In materialist terms, the frontiersman is an opportunist. And staking out the next urban frontier in an undervalued neighborhood is undoubtedly a way to build wealth, and even establish your position in society.
But materialist terms don't exhaust the Frontier's significance. In romantic terms, it evokes a certain tension between vital energies and the way the world is always threatening to dissolve into incoherence. It's easy to think that's a threat particular to the modern world, which gets faster and more complex and trickier to navigate every day. But it might be that people have always felt it. That before you can live, you have to establish a foothold, a place to stand and orient yourself and make sense of the world. Whether you do that on some new, vital frontier, or in a place like Bridgeport, someplace more like the center of the world.