On a small garden and other small gestures in the time of Covid-19

I am living in a duplex in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami. My immediate neighbors and I share a little garden patio that faces the sidewalk. Weeks before the pandemic hit Miami, before it occurred to any of us that we’d all be living in close quarters with roommates or partners or children, and with nowhere to go, the couple next door found patio furniture to sit on. They gathered terracotta pots from local garage sales. They planted herbs: dill, basil, mint, rosemary, parsley… all flourishing now. We even have our own twin plastic pink flamingos in the yard. 

In an attempt to escape the confines of my house now, I often (try to) work at a small table outside. I chat with neighbors through the chain-link fence as they pass by. They share news and jokes, local gossip. The feral cats lie together in the sun on the sidewalk and, I like to think, wonder at the quiet. Traffic in the city, notorious for gridlock, has diminished. We’re on a state-wide stay at home order as of a few days ago. A week ago, a 10pm curfew began across the city. I’ve been hunkered down for three weeks, all my classes and meetings now remote. But I’m free to sit with my partner, with whom I am vectoring, as long into the night as I like in our tiny, shared stretch of Miami. 

I miss the city as I knew it just a few weeks ago. I liked to go to Coconut Grove and write at Panther Coffee, and in the evenings at Taurus, one of the oldest continuously operating bars in Miami, where patrons and bartenders really do know each other’s names. (It’s the only place in the world, really, where everyone calls me ‘Professor’). 

I miss the beaches, taken from us by spring breakers whose youth made them feel invincible, I suppose, and who gathered en mass despite pleas from public health officials here and everywhere, until all those piles of warm sand, and even the salty Atlantic waters lapping at the shores, became forbidden territory. 

It’s a strange thing to grieve a city still, if more quietly, humming all around you. It’s strange to grieve the smallest of physical pleasures: the shaking of hands; the un-masked smile between strangers at a distance fewer than six feet; the touching of objects, absentmindedly, in grocery stores and shops. I miss picking up a volume in a bookstore or a library that had already been leafed through by others–who knows how many? I wish a yoga instructor could press on the base of my spine and correct my posture in a pose. I wish a colleague could greet me with a hug or a kiss on the cheek. I wish a student could come and slouch in an office chair, lament a grade or beg for more time, their ungloved fingers nervously tracing the edges of my desk. I’d like to sit in the presence of people whom I do not know, in a crowded cafe, and watch the world go by on something other than the screen of my lap top. I’d like to order a meal at a restaurant, with friends, and have it set, steaming, before us by bare hands. I’d like to share food across the same table, take bites of things from other people’s plates. 

May that city, that world, in some form, come back to us. Though I hope that when it does it will be a world better than the one we have been forced to leave behind, that vanished so quickly as the sickness spread. I hope that we will notice, and love, the hands that pass a dish, or count out change, or extend awaiting an offering. I hope that we will keep with us, all, the unthinkable volume of care and comfort we neglected to notice. I hope we will never forget that those many heroes of our current struggle were not made heroes by pestilence, but were heroes all along: cashiers, gas station attendants, delivery drivers, farm workers, nurses… That we will know when this is over that a handshake, indeed, any laying on of hands, is no small thing, but rather an essential performance of the wildly vast network of bonds between all of us delicate mortal creatures in our gardens, our neighborhoods, our cities, our states, our nations, our Earth.

But for now, I take great solace in the small space of the garden built by my dear neighbors. And in the walkers and joggers and their leashed dogs who pass. In the cats basking on warm concrete and licking their paws. I cook with the herbs that grow in what is now both outdoor workspace and tiny community. I ride my bike. I hope for better news, or no news at all. I wash my hands.


On Sharing

Comrades! I neglected to post this when it was hot off the presses. But here it is, cold off the presses. Go to your local (architecture) library and find my article, co-authored with Jeff Kruth: “Buenos Aires Libre: Risk, Resistance, and Tactical Sharing,” ​in Plat ​7.0. 

 


Of the everglades and the fiction of solid ground

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I had the great pleasure of hosting a few nature-loving friends over the course of last week. Aside from the lizard and bird-spotting you can do pretty much anywhere in Miami, we also managed to head out for a day to the 15 mile bike loop in Everglades National Park, Shark Valley.

The ride is flat and easy. The glades engulf you as you trek further along. If you’re lucky (as we were), and it’s not too trafficked, you can ride for miles with only the local wildlife as company.

The alligator population is such that sometimes you actually have to swerve to avoid the creatures as they nap—their long, dark bodies sprawled half along the pavement, half dipped in the still waters alongside it. I lost count of the number of these odd beasts we spotted somewhere in the low twenties.*

The landscape is also, of course, dense with a wide variety of strange wetland flora as well. It makes for an expansive and alien environment for a desert creature like me. And beautiful.

I spent much of the ride thinking about two things: 1.) The impending flooding of Miami and its surrounding areas, which will, you can be sure, eventually make painfully clear the consequences of our shared disavowal of climate change, and 2.), the reminder a friend recently gave me that the outline of Florida you see on any given map is a fiction. The borders are porous in the state. Land is sometimes dry and sometimes wet. The water level, not the cartographer, marks the shifting outlines of this bizarre jutting mass, a sort of vestigial tail of the continental U.S.

Much has been written about the (political) trouble with maps.** But to my knowledge, considerably less so about the ecological consequences of ordering space cartographically. If we understand Florida as solid ground to stand on, we do so in part because we believe in the fictive representation of its borders on the maps we make of it. And that representation in turn allows us to ignore the material facts of ecology, and of our participation in it. Maps also, I think, quite likely aid in the disavowal of the material facts of the State.*** These are not separate issues. And their mutual imbrication will be made only more clear when refugees cross borders to escape ecological disaster just as frequently as they currently do by cause of political catastrophe.

Riding through the glades, despite the tourists and the paved path, is one way to encourage a different kind of map making: one more rooted in the body and the experience of place (both very messy affairs) than the ordered work of dividing land from water, self from other, us from them. It seems that we will certainly, in the coming years, need better ways to make alternative maps. Because the water is coming. And we might have been better off if we had acknowledged that it has always, in some way, already been here.

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* We also saw a female crocodile (apparently the only one typically in the park). And, of course, birds of various sorts flew alongside us as we rode.

**See, in particular, the lovely work of Michel de Certeau.

*** Think, for example, of the recent claims made by presidential hopeful (and all around asshole) Donald Trump about the necessity of a literal wall along the U.S./Mexico border.

 


Bienvenido a Miami*

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Oh comrades, dearest comrades! I have now lived in Miami for just over a month. What follows are the three most distinct (if entirely non-scholarly, anecdotally-based, wholly subjective, and only initial) impressions I have of this curious, sometimes brutal, sometimes astoundingly beautiful city.

As a woman of the West, born in the desert, whose baseline phenomenological landscape is one in which foliage is sparse and sunset reds and browns glow through the evening, the first thing that struck me about Miami was the plant life. Everywhere you go these massive, sinewy, insanely green and lush trees and bushes reach their leafy arms in all directions. There are flowering things, too, that might be something else entirely (and that look, certainly, as though they’ve grown underwater). This ubiquitous flora sends its various vines dripping down. It shakes off its warm winter rain collections onto the streets below. One feels sometimes, walking among such creaturely greenery, like civilization, infrastructure, and all the stuff of urban life, is teetering very near the edge of its annihilation at the hands of the hungry jungle upon which it was built. It is amazing. And sometimes terrifying.

Equally astounding is the linguistic diversity. It would be very difficult indeed to get through a day wandering around the city without hearing at least 3 languages. More if you could trace the incredible and dynamic shifts between the regional dialects of Spanish. But while this is, it seems, a Latin American more than a U.S. American city, Spanish is by no means comfortably holding an aural monopoly. Haitian creole, Portuguese, French, German, Italian… They combine in busy bars and restaurants, and among the crowds on Miami’s beaches, to make a cosmopolitan cacophony that sounds, if you’re in the right mood, like a strange, avant-garde piece of music.

Finally: the sprawl. I have written in the past of the potentialities (both positive and negative) of urban sprawl, but my time in Los Angeles did not prepare me for the bizarre machinations of sprawl as they exist in Miami. The way the city grew into and around its suburban and pre-urban enclaves and (from what I understand) its byzantine and likely corrupt collection of development policies and politics means that infrastructure is clogged. Cars are privileged while pedestrians and bikers and public transit riders are largely ignored. The arterial Route 1, off of which I live, is a hellish parking lot that I think I would be willing to claim is worse than Los Angeles’s infamous 405.

There is much more, I hope, I will soon write about the complex of neighborhoods and their particularities. For now, these three observations of the so-called Magic City will have to suffice. It is a jungle of both plant and automotive life, and of linguistic acrobatics. Miami is proving to be, if nothing else, fascinating.

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*When one is moving to Miami, one learns with terrifying quickness that Will Smith’s 1998 hit single “Miami” is the most salient cultural reference to the city (at least among my generation) for many, many people. One makes this deeply upsetting realization when one is forced to listen to many of one’s friends and loved ones sing the chorus again and again and again. The damage Mr. Smith did to Miami’s global reputation cannot be calculated.


Of thee I sing, oh Cleveland

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I am a swooner. I just am. People make me swoon. Weather can too. I swoon over good coffee. And cities. I am, perhaps more than anything else, a city-swooner.

I think I might have always been a seeker of special places. When I was a kid I used to make myself a tiny squat in a corner behind a huge houseplant in my parents’ living room. I liked the way the light shot in through the leaves, and that no one could find me there. I liked the idea that even the small animal that was me could choose a space, embed herself and her imagination in it, make it her own. That corner was likely the first clear indication of an obsession with place and space that has followed me across the three continents and 7 cities I have called home. And yes, I fell for all of those cities. Hard.

It might be safe to say, though, that I have never swooned with such intoxication and ecstasy as I did over the city of Cleveland. And my heart, though it has often been broken, has never felt quite so crushed by a departure as the one I now face, sitting as I do in my small apartment in Miami, far from the smoke stacks of the ArcelorMittal Steel Plant, and the grey skies of the Midwest, and the shores of the great Lake Erie. Oh Cleveland. My Cleveland. I long for you.

It is difficult to point exactly to what it is about the city that so captured me. Certainly the exceptional availability of cheap beer helped. And the first real snow falls of the season. (I only understood what Robert Frost meant by ‘downy flake’ after the winter of 2014).* I loved the architecture, even, perhaps especially, the dilapidated mansions of Millionaire’s Row and the decaying industrial warehouses all around. I even grew to love the Browns. Oh, and the dive bars. The not-so-divey dive bars. The Metroparks. The flats. The hot dogs. The utter, insane, giddy joy induced in everyone when, after so many dark months, the sun comes out on the first 60-degree day in Spring.

Mostly, though, I think it was Clevelanders. They are a scrappy, long-suffering, hard working, weird and sometimes misanthropic bunch. And even if they might say otherwise, sometimes, to each other, they love their city. And, after a while, an amazing crowd among them seemed to love me too. And god, did I ever swoon over them. So, so much.

But, woe, oh dear readers, this is my last Cleveland post for the foreseeable future. And thus, because I swooned so, let it stand as a declaration of my absolute, my undying, my completely sincere adoration for Cleveland and for its glorious, bizarre, and beautiful inhabitants. Let it be a call, loud and echoing, into the abyss of the internet. I sing your praises, Cleveland. I sing of your cursed sports teams, of your waterways once aflame, of your art, and your grace, and that strange smell still lingering from the hey day of industry that is sometimes carried by your bitter winds. I sing of your bagels. I sing of the market on your West and the snow banks on your East. I sing of your booze. I sing of your brunches. And I sing most of all for those within your borders, and those poor lost souls, like me, who long to return. I sing of your glory. For it is your own, hard-won glory. It is only, always yours. Oh Cleveland. My Cleveland. I love you.

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*See  his “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening“.


Play of the Day

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Comrades, oh dear comrades!

The play of this autumnal day is the publication of my most recent article (co-authored with my lovely and brilliant colleague, Katie Kelp-Stebbins) in Media Fields.

You can read it here if you so desire.


Play of the Day

6251267834_bd6b0b0e6e_oComrades!

Lo! And alas! The end of the summer draws rapidly nigh. For those of us in the great city of Cleveland, this means sucking as much warm weather marrow out of the season’s bones as it can possibly offer. And they may not offer that much. This is Northeastern Ohio. We know what’s coming.

For me, in particular, the close of summer requires an effort to maximize the number of hours I can lie, buoyed by fresh or salt or chlorinated water, with my toes wiggling toward the horizon. And so, on this Labor Day weekend, let me celebrate with you one play of the day that was not, in any real way, laborious: I spent the morning floating in the shallow, warm waters of the Great Lake Erie.

Lake beaches are fantastic. And since Cleveland has put in great efforts to make its waters more inhabitable, they’re usually* a great place to store up some vitamin D and take a dip. My personal favorite for you, oh dear readers, is Huntington Beach in Bay Village. I swam there for hours.

I’m pretty sure my totem animal is a sea otter. And maybe there aren’t any in the Great Lakes. But I feel like I might serve as a reasonable (slightly less furry and cute) substitute.

That’s my play of the proverbial day, friends. Now get the hell outside and find your own way to get some summer sun while the getting is still good.

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*Still always a good idea to check the nowcast. And if it’s been raining recently, maybe pick a patio somewhere instead of tossing your heat-weary body into the water. I’m told “combined sewer runoff” is a problem. I haven’t looked up what exactly that phenomenon entails. Nor do I intend to.