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.
* 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.
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.
*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.
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.
*See his “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening“.
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.
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.
*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.
Fine friends and comrades! Forgive yet another long lapse in posting. I have, however, for those patient readers among you, not one but two fabulous plays of the days. They are as follows:
1.) You know how I love cities, obviously, but did you know that I, along with two talented architect/academic/urbanist types, recently founded a little research and design collaborative? Well I did. It’s called SPEC. See our nascent projects and older works here!
2.) You know how I love gainful, secure employment?* Well I do. And am proud to announce that in January of 2016 I will be joining the faculty of the department of Modern Languages at the University of Miami as an Assistant Professor of Digital Humanities and Modern Languages. HUZZAH!!! Looks like this little itinerant lady will soon be learning to love a new city!
And that, oh dear readers, is all. At least for now.
*Love is too strong a word. But I love gainful employment a lot more than I do the precarious labor that is de rigueur in the current instantiation of Integrated World Capital.
Driving into Cleveland on 71 North, you might happen to take the Quigley Road exit. As you head down the hill and toward West 7th St. you will be confronted by two, side by side and asymmetrically striking, architectural disasters. These are not the vistas of Cleveland’s sometimes impressive urban landscape any seeking to sell the city would offer. The first is the sprawling, drab, junkspace* that calls itself “Steelyard Commons.” Housing a Home Depot, a Target, a Walmart, and a number of unremarkable and similar big and not-so-big box stores, this shopping mecca/dystopia (like literally countless others of its ilk) is, at best, a convenient stop for locals who need to pick something up on the cheap. At worst, it is an eyesore, an annoyance, and a terrible reminder of the increasingly global homogeneity of commercial space. Just next door to Steelyard Commons is, in fact, a still-functioning steel mill. This is our second disaster (though, it is perhaps more aesthetically pleasing, thanks to a kind of abysmal, hipster nostalgia). One of the last of its kind, it poses a threatening, anachronistic, theatrical counter to the “commons” to its west.
When I first drove into Cleveland I ignored the ignoble shopping center but was awed by the behemoth mill, even charmed by it. The reason folks like me (educated, cultured, relatively ‘upper’ in the class structure) can be wowed by such mammoth markers of a bygone industrial age is because they indicate an economy that no longer holds real sway and because they seem to anchor us to a material world we fear may be losing its purchase on what we experience as reality. The mill is a marker of a vanished boom of not just industry but of politics: once, says the steel mill, there existed a viable labor movement, the possibility of a living wage, and accessibility to middle and working class status. There were things to be made that required materials and hands to shape them. The wild abstractions of the contemporary global economy must have seemed to many, in the heyday of industry, an impossible future.
The contrast of these two ‘steelyards’ encourages an aestheticizing of the age of Ford and Taylor, of blue collar culture, and of the things that workers, we’re told, were well paid to make. The monster mill, at the very least, demands a kind of attention the dull, flat banality of the strip mall does not. I have to admit, I swooned. So far from Los Angeles, I thought, so close to real production.
And while Steelyard Commons (which is by no means a commons of any sort) has become the more appalling, but also the more accurate and ubiquitous indicator of the state of things in Cleveland, the steel mill still rumbles in the neighborhood nearby. Affective (and precarious) labor of the sort done by the Walmart greeter may be winning the day (and making the rungs of the class ladder more slippery than ever), but there are workers of all sorts, everywhere, who still build, make and shape. And affective labor is labor. Make no mistake about it.
I want to suggest that in Cleveland, the side-by-side existence of these two not-quite dichotomous forms of labor (and the troubling architecture that houses it) may offer to the city’s residents and passersby a kind of critical opening.
This kind of remarkable juxtaposition, in fact, happens more in the rust belt, at least in the U.S., than it does in the world’s global capitals. And the story Cleveland is telling about the U.S. and, likely, the global economy, is one that scholars, activists, architects, designers, citizens and immigrants of all sorts should not ignore.
If you look, as you literally can, at Cleveland’s past (the steel mill) and its present (Steelyard Commons), you will feel pretty hopeless. The old model failed, the new model is deeply invested in an economy that seems forever insistent on increasing the gap between the rich and the poor as it whittles down the former to a tiny few. Neither the industrial nor the service models have been good to people of color or women. But, miraculously, what Cleveland has is its failure. Steelyard Commons points, without knowing that it does so, to the trouble of the industrial economy indicated by the big, smoking, impossible mill still burning to its east. And the misery the shopping center, itself, indicates isn’t lost on workers (or on the hipsters and city boosters who would prefer a very different sort of architecture by which to careen on the highway). Steelyard Commons, by signaling its neighbor, also accidentally reminds us, if we look harder than simply at its structure, that bubbles burst. That you cannot bank, indeed, on any totalizing view of what it is we do when we work, or what it is we live in when we live in a city.
That Steelyard Commons pretends so audaciously to belong to the common may seem at first to indicate the foreclosure of alternative possible futures. But what if instead of nodding our heads in that direction, sorry that we haven’t a salve to our savage desire for a commons that might actually belong to all of us, we actually offer material alternatives? What if in the swaths of abandoned spaces and infrastructure, vacant land and empty buildings, we build to suit for neither economy, but instead for us? Weekend roller rinks in the flats. Art-trading fairs in old book factories. Discoballs dangling above dance parties on underutilized bridges.
The Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative (among others) has offered indeed some of these very same solutions through their Pop Up City interventions, but I want more. I want a built environment that seeks a future more equitable, more sustainable than the one we seem to be hurtling toward. Perhaps we cannot yet point to the developer willing to add a third sort of structure, somewhere between the two steelyards, that looks further into the future than either. But if we don’t ask for it, it will never appear.
A recent article published on alternet echoed a sentiment to which I strongly hold: “Struggling US cities of the rust belt and heartland lack the investment of coastal contemporaries, but have in turn been spared the rapid displacement of hipster economics. Buffered by their eternal uncoolness, these slow-changing cities have a chance to make better choices – choices that value the lives of people over the aesthetics of place.” If you’ve read this blog, you will know that I’ve been saying more or less (despite its coolness, though, rather than because of its uncoolness) the same thing about Cleveland since I moved here. Cleveland does not have to do what it did in the past. It doesn’t have to keep doing what it is now.
I want to sail into Cleveland on 71, one day, and see, growing from the ruins of the industrial and the service economies, a different model of urban building. I want a material manifestation of that imagined utopia that is truly common. Too much to ask? Perhaps. But I am asking anyway.
*See the compelling and sometimes polemic Rem Koolhaas’s exceptional essay, in which he coins the term: Junkspace.
**For a brief history of labor movements in Cleveland, check this out.