Tag Archives: Historic Preservation

Autumn to Winter in Fargo

This is a quick post, something that has been on my mind during my walks to and from campus at North Dakota State University. I have been walking past a historic apartment building about the corner of College Street and 11th Avenue North for years now. The sturdy brick construction caught my eye a couple years ago. I also appreciate its aesthetics. As autumn began to give way to winter this year, I thought I’d snap a couple photos at seasonal intervals to post later — which is now — on this here blog. The first was taken at some point in August-September, 2013. The second was taken after the first big snowfall. Here are the two photos of my own, followed by the GoogleEarth photo.




Art After the Earthquake: Public Art and Public History in Christchurch, New Zealand

The Anglican Cathedral in Christchurch Square. Photo from November 26, 2013.

The Anglican Cathedral in Christchurch Square. Photo from November 26, 2013.

Since September 4, 2010, an earthquake and subsequent aftershocks have caused death and damage to the South Island of New Zealand. Yesterday, on November 26, 2013, Matthew McLain, Molly McLain and I had a chance to visit Cathedral Square in downtown Christchurch. Since the earthquakes first started in September 2010, I had followed the destruction here and there from North Dakota. Like many (or all) destructive events, one gets a different impression from reading about it in contrast to physically visiting it.

In the aftermath, Christchurch has charged artists and historians to inspire and encourage. We saw a few pieces of local public history and public art, this amidst the endless sounds of jackhammering, and sights of construction barriers, rubble, razed and condemned buildings, chain link fence and orange road cones. I enjoyed on piece of public art history entitled “A vast, changing canvas.” The short narrative said,

A public history display in Cathedral Square, downtown Christchurch, New Zealand. Photo from November 26, 2013.

A public history display in Cathedral Square, downtown Christchurch, New Zealand. Photo from November 26, 2013.

In the city’s altered centre, art, storytelling and the realm of the imagination claim a vital role. Artists Chris Heaphy and Sara Hughes have unleashed color, pattern and energy to communicate an active sense of possibility.

It completely makes sense when wandering around the otherwise grey concrete and rubble-strewn urban scape of the Cathedral District. One piece of public art was a glorified living room covered in astroturf. This impressed upon me the idea of returning the Cathedral District to an outdoor living room. The large sofa, when sitting on it, points you toward the severely damaged Anglican Church.

Another public piece of organic art is the botanical entry that frames the way visitors and sight-seers can view the church (and potential rehab, much of which is documented in this blog here). The three of us had a hard time finding sensibly priced lodging in downtown Christchurch, so we took to the non-city centre and eventually found a cozy little motel. I think it’s important to note here, though, that Christchurch is functioning. In the wake of the September 11, 2001 destruction, I remember Mayor Rudy Giuliani encouraging non-New Yorkers to continue visiting New York City. A couple friends of mine and I ended up taking him up on that, and we visited downtown New York City and Ground Zero in late September 2001.

Public Art that impressionistically simulates an outdoor living room in Cathedral Square, Christchurch. Molly McLain is obliging the artists, and taking it all in.

Public Art that impressionistically simulates an outdoor living room in Cathedral Square, Christchurch. Molly McLain is obliging the artists, and taking it all in.

If someone was to ask me whether or not to visit Christchurch, this in the context of all the rebuilding, I’d encourage it. You might want to book additional sight-seeing to the variety of wineries and vineyards surrounding Christchurch, or the hot spring pools in Hamnar Springs, or the natural history that is the Fox Glacier or Franz Josef Glacier, or (you get the idea). We’ll continue thinking of Christchurch, and we are thankful for the artists that have been charged with and want to reinvigorate the local human spirit. This works just as well in the formal and informal sense. For example, while waiting for our out-going flight at the Christchurch airport, a young kiwi just ran up to Molly and handed her a home-made Merry Christmas card; Molly is creating her own as a response. Inspiration, or inspiring the spirit within others, is contagious that way.

Historic Preservation in Medora, North Dakota

Badlands SaloonThis morning I read a story in the Fargo Forum on how numerous business owners in the historic heritage tourism town of Medora, southwestern North Dakota, said no, they will not be razing a couple historic buildings from the 19th century to make way for shiny new construction. The story reminded me of Jonathan Twingley’s The Badlands Saloon: A Novel (Scribner, 2009), at least how Jon lays out the “fictional” town of Maryville (which is based off the reality of Medora).

In the Fargo Forum story, Loren and Jennifer Morlock were present at the Medora Planning and Zoning Board meeting (held at the Badlands Pizza Parlor), and their Dakota Cyclery bicycle shop has been a long-standing fixture in one of the historic buildings. In the article, Loren said, “In our building, people come in with video cameras just to look at the structure and the building… People think it’s one of the coolest places for a bike shop that there is — we get that once per week. It works so well. I think there needs to be more research done before we just knock this stuff over.” Loren is spot-on here.

Now contrast this with one of the opening chapters in Jonathan’s novel, The Badlands Saloon. The main character finished his first year of art school in New York City, and returned to take a summer job in “Marysville,” aka Medora. He called his long time friend, Tank Wilson, who he knew from Bismarck, to see if he could fix flat bicycle tires for a summer at his bike shop in Medora — I mean “Marysville.” Jonathan further describes Marysville as follows (compare this with the Fargo Forum story as well):

In town there was the Old West Shooting Gallery and bumper cars, everything done up in an Old Western style. The sidewalk that ran past the Badlands Saloon and the old-timey pizza parlor was a wooden boardwalk like the ones in the John Wayne movies. The town had become a strange version of itself, the old and the new functioning in some sort of syncopation, a generic vision of what towns once looked like when there were cowboys and Indians and wagon wheels and campfires. But there was an authenticity to it all, too. Marysville had been around for so long that it embodied several pasts at the same time, each one elbowing out some room for itself among the newer versions of the Old Town(Twingley, 2009: 15)

These are the fixtures in a nationally-published novel by a local Bismarck artist and writer who lives in New York City (Twingley’s blogspot is linked in the Blogroll sidebar to the right) and Loren Morlock and others are spot-on when they oppose the razing of historic structures. I just thought I’d share some of what came to me when I read about their efforts this morning. Medora has a soul, and it is best not to gut it, lest we raze and smother the deep culture intrinsic to historic buildings, and historic preservation. Development is good, but there are an infinite number of ways to go about it without having to crush the material culture of yesteryear.

Cultivating the Humanities

This morning I am sitting down to my usual coffee, and thinking about several responses to the latest report issued by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, “The Heart of the Matter: Report of the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences,” that of which is linked to here. I was checking in with my buddy Bill Caraher’s blog today and I noticed he linked to a few responses to this report as well, here and here, and another Wall Street Journal piece here. While reading all of these, a sort of anxiety started building up in me, this resulting from the following thought: why not read a scholarly monograph or a novel instead of reports on whether or not the humanities and social sciences is in a fatalistic state of decline?

I also thought about how the humanities are everywhere, and then I wondered how people who complain about having gotten nothing out of college spent the majority of their time in said college. Were they doing keg-stands, or were they in the library stacks, perusing used book stores, reading-reading-reading, having coffee and conversation and beer and more conversation about interests with others, writing, re-writing and looking over the papers of one another or, once again, strictly doing keg-stands? Did their schooling look like this, as in Bluto from Animal House? Or did it look more like this, as in Max Fischer from Rushmore? (Max Fischer, of course, was in preparatory and private school, but the idea is there: he received mediocre marks, but he was involved in an endless amount of extracurricular activities).

I also wondered about the state of communities immediate to university campuses. For example, I stumbled into an undergraduate program (at the University of Minnesota in downtown Minneapolis-St. Paul) where the humanities (not even defined as such) were happening arguably more outside of the classroom and off campus than they were on campus. At least between 1999-2002, Dinkytown had two to three used book stores, at least two coffee shops (the Purple Onion was one of them), several hole-in-the-wall taverns, a used CD/record store with an endless selection of everything, a liquor store, pizza shops, an Afghanistan cafe, and so on. And this didn’t include the other stretch of coffee shops and cafes and taverns immediate to the intersection of Washington Avenue and Harvard Street. I did the majority of learning outside of class, and I figured out that you take these ideas into classroom discussions, at least those classrooms where professors allowed it (there are, of course, professors that command students to strictly focus on the required readings and nothing else, which is a different tangent all together).

What isn’t addressed in this Harvard-published work is how universities might work with their local community planning boards to develop an immediate off-campus culture(s) that allows students to explore said humanities on their own. Historic preservationists might get involved for sure, as this would require the renovation of those pre-WWII homes (please don’t tear them down for 2013 asphalt strip mall construction) just across the street from campuses to be converted into those excellent used book stores and coffee shops and hole-in-the-wall diners, local and ethnic. Make sure students can walk to these places rather than drive. If need be, use Dinkytown as a model or framework.

Also notice that the board of this Harvard report lacks students and graduate students. Every contributor to the board is some kind of established, high-powered professional. They are required to fatalistically bemoan the disappearance of the humanities and social sciences (I’m not big on fatalism, to be fair), and they should be doing this because that is what they see at their professional level. It’s important to keep that in mind. A future report would benefit from bringing more voices in from individuals who are in that liminal space between getting their undergrad and graduate degrees in the humanities and social sciences, and figuring out how to locate jobs or start entrepreneur-ing (not a word) themselves.