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 dies 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.