Archive by Author

Escape the Urban Book Review: Robert Kull’s “Solitude”

20 Nov

In February 2001, Robert Kull took the concept of “escaping the urban” to its logical extreme: he moved to an uninhabited island in the glaciated fjordlands of southern Chile and lived alone for a year. On purpose. The only companion he packed in was a cat named Cat – all other kinship he discovered while there. 

The non-fiction shelf of your local bookstore is full of what my agent calls “stunt books.” Authors place themselves in gimmicky and often preposterous scenarios to create a new frame for an old story: reading the entire encyclopedia, living a year according to a strict interpretation of the Bible, walking or biking or kayaking across a continent. Kull is less stuntman than hermit. His quest was the oldest: spiritual, not contrived drama, more Coptic guru than Bear Grylls.

Robert Kull, according to his own description, is an ex-woodsman, part time scuba instructor, Buddhist/New Age fusion acolyte and (now) successful PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia. In 2000 he managed to convince his dissertation committee to allow him to spend a year alone in the wilderness to research the affect of prolonged isolation on the human psyche. He would be both observer and subject, and kept daily journals to study and record his activities, mood, and ramblings. Because Kull is missing a leg and likes to sit and meditate, those diary entries contain more stream of consciousness than action narrative. The intimate (but fortunately edited, though a more forceful slashing would have been welcome) daily log forms the bulk of this book, broken by various interludes to explore themes of technology, scientific inquiry, and the Big Mind of creation.

I was initially entranced by Kull’s concept, and my own longing for remote Patagonia. The book’s front half moves right along as logistical concerns dominate: choosing the right remote island, procuring gear and supplies, planning a year’s worth of meals, building a cabin in the raging wind and rain, finding and stacking firewood for the coming cold, exploring inlets and isolated pebble beaches to discover ducks, dolphins, seals and limpets.  

But as he settles in to a long winter of isolation, as anxiety gives way to comfortable introspection, Kull loses all readers except the most devoted (trite?) spiritual explorers. I stubbornly stuck around waiting for the moment he would snap, smear gratuitous psychological carnage across the page, a sign of solitary induced dementia finally evident. Instead, Kull forms friendships with Butter Belly Diving Ducks, sees reassuring spirit faces in the rock formations on the mountain sides, and only seems to dread the expected depression that will come with reintegration into human society. He finds pleasant Solitude, not Loneliness, and his self-indulgent self-criticism aside, seems more content counting shellfish on the shore than facing bustling Vancouver again.

Most disappointing, however, was that despite his constant introspection, Kull could never see the irony of his entire endeavor: the human society he shunned produced the technology that made his mission possible. Kull did not paddle out to an island and build himself a cabin out of the materials he found there. The Chilean Navy shipped in pallets of gear for him: lumber and nails and screws and plastic sheeting to build his cabin, solar panels and a wind turbine to make electricity for incandescent light and his computer and sat-phone, a rigid inflatable raft with two outboard motors. While Kull asks himself whether he is really alone if he can email his pseudo-partner any time he wants, he never contemplates whether he could have traveled to his island in the first place without two tons of stuff.

Self-help junkies, rapt meditators and quasi-spiritual investigators will enjoy Kull’s quest into the self and the occasionally interesting insights into life it provides. Wilderness enthusiasts will ask themselves if they could pull of a year near Tierra del Fuego, may experience a momentary twinge of jealousy, but ultimately will only wonder how this book ended up in the outdoor section of Barnes and Noble.

The Grass is Not Always Greener: Tex-Mex Fears

16 Nov

The fierce yin and yang of America’s divergent relationship with its two borders is embodied in two provincial border cities: Buffalo in the north, and El Paso in the south. Here our concerns are greater engagement with Canada, the easing of border restrictions, developing an economic plan to build off bi-national trade. Here our elected officials (the incoming county executive, for instance) call for using the border as a business engine. Here we regularly cross north for weekends in Toronto and chinese food.

There, in El Paso, the prime concern is safety from Mexico, enforcing strict border restrictions, and shutting down the most profitable of cross border trades (mules carrying drugs, guns and workers). There elected officials call for ranchers to arm themselves from spillover violence among and between drug cartels and federales. There vacation cross border traffic stopped a long time ago.

The last time I wrote about El Paso after a visit, I said the smell of burning garbage, intense desert heat, and sounds of gunfire in the distance reminded me of Iraq. Last week I returned again, but as we stayed in a hotel north of the city and further from the border, I didn’t get any unwanted flashbacks this time.

While I was there I heard news of a poll, asking Texans to rank the top challenges for Texas and the country as a whole. Like much of the rest of the country, Texans rank “the economy” as the United States’ chief concern. But locally, they are more worried about “immigration.” While to us Blue State northerners this may conjure images of xenophobic Red State racists, talking to actual Texans (not surprisingly) yields a far more nuanced picture. New York may envy Texas’ economic engine, but certainly not the border issues. 

In places like El Paso and Laredo and Corpus Christi, large Latino populations predate the United States or State of Texas; the border moved, not the people. With families split by the river and an open relationship between the two countries, people and goods moved back and forth unofficially, under the radar, but mainly peacefully. A rancher I spoke to, who grew up in south west Texas, remembers fondly the days of mutually positive relationships between land owners and migrant workers; days that are now as far away as the old timer’s childhoods.

That less-than-legal but tacitly-accepted easy relationship has been replaced by fear and anger. Not fear of “immigrants,” and the jobs they may take or strain they put on social services (Texas is not California), but fear of violence: murders and kidnapping. The anger is almost exclusively reserved for the Obama administration, perceived as ineffectual at best, and purposely and dangerously ignorant at worst.

First, the situation. Some 40,000 odd people have died in Mexico since 2006 as a result of the war between various drug cartel factions and the Mexican government. In the last year, the violence has increased in both volume and scope: more deaths than ever, and more gruesome methods (car bombs, chainsaw beheadings (I’m not linking to it), targeting of social media reporters). To Texans, this violence is not academic – the majority is happening a couple of miles away, especially on the border town of Ciudad Juarez, and is crossing the border in under-reported ways. The reported murder rate for Americans in Mexico is up 300%, but that figure only includes voluntary reports to the State Department, not reports from Mexican officials. American gangs are increasingly linked to Mexican cartels. Locals will tell you that while the vast vast majority of bodies are found on the Mexican side of the border, the general suspicion is that at least some are killed here and dumped there.

In response to this trend, Texan and federal government officials have mostly squabbled. Texan politicians feel like the feds aren’t taking the situation seriously, as evidenced by President Obama denying a meeting on the issue with Governor Perry. In Washington, officials are uneasy about the scope of the response already: fences and border patrol and deployed national guard. When the Obama Administration does act, it does so incompetently – a major story down south (and mostly ignored this far north) is the bungling of FBI/ATF Operation Fast and Furious. That firearm sting operation sent 2000 functioning and untracked weapons to Mexico, 1400 of which are unaccounted for. When locals take efforts into their own hands, tragic mistakes inevitably follow.

Fear and anger. Beneath the failed Birther rhetoric that creeps into the vocal frustration is a basic human fear of violence. Fear for one’s family. Fear of a way of life taken, not by economic force but physical force. Anger that a Border Patrol agent was killed by an errant gun from the Fast and Furious operation, and no one in the federal government (especially AG Holder) has taken responsibility. Frustration that a war is happening a mile or two away and the rest of the country doesn’t know or care. STRATFOR, the Austin-based private global intel company, has declared Mexico is nearing failed state status. Is anyone paying attention?

Escape the Urban Travelogue: An Unlovable Land

13 Nov

I spent the last week alternating between freezing and cooking on a table of high desert in a corner of New Mexico, just north of El Paso and the big bend of the Rio Grande. The northernmost finger of the expansive Chihuahuan Desert, this is a land of yuccas and scrubs, crusted-over mud that devolves into baby powder at the least disturbance, a tableau painted almost entirely from a palette of various browns and tans. There are only three exceptions to this uniform dirty smear: the deep sky above, two weeks of wet spring that brings the desert to bloom, and the mountains shimmering in the distance, blue during the blinding sunny days, purple when backlit from a dusty blown orange sunset.

This mile high landscape is beautiful like the bleached skeletons that litter the dessicated wadis. Beautiful like a chiseled slab of granite split from the relentless wind alone. Beautiful like a coyote howl heard from a mesa miles away, not a single obstruction to attenuate the sound between.

If this land is lovely, it is also unlovable. Not even the most hardened denizen can love a home that is constantly trying to kill. Tolkien’s elves and hobbits fell in love with whispering trees, rolling grassy hills and well-tilled earth, not spiny ground cactus, parched ridgelines and caliche dust flowing through your fingers like a powdery hourglass. Here your cheeks aren’t rosy from a nip in the air, but from a competition between the sun and wind to see which can deliver the more lasting burn. In New York, our “in-between places” naturally fill in with forest and vine and horsetails. Out in the high desert, the same places gather drifts of dirt in the open, and plastic trash in the cities.

If this land is not loved, that does not mean it is not respected, or admired, or pined for even. Having lived in eastern New Mexico for several years, I can confidently say that residents who bore their home any affection loved not their land but what it represented. Loved what the open landscape stood for. Freedom. Opportunity. Self-sufficiency. A pride in having been toughened by the clime, still standing tall like a dried yucca stalk, unbroken though etched and scarred by the wind and sun. The signs of past hardships are everywhere; the road I drove everyday between draws and low gullies appeared on our map as an old stagecoach tract, the squared and cut paving stones, now cracked, still lining the wheel ruts.

Back home now on grey wet Grand Island, my boots are still impregnated with dust, my neck is looks like parched beef jerky, and my wide horizons are shrunk again by the enveloping canopy.

Post Election Predictions

9 Nov

After a short campaign that was more yawn than scream, Mark Poloncarz succeeded last night in breaking an important glass ceiling: first WNYMedia commenter elected County Executive. Congrats, Mark – like the Bills, enjoy the win for 24 hours, then get down to work.

How predictable was Chris Collins’ four year slide from competent businessman to arrogant and out of touch Six Sigma aficionado? Looking back, the signs were there; his fate a possible scenario, not an inevitability.

In that vein, let’s have a little fun making some predictions about Poloncarz’s next four years. Here are mine – be sure to add your own witty additions below. And before these get too accusatory vis a vis my supposed partisanship, there are my best guess, not my wish.

– Arts and Libraries: The libraries will get more money. The arts will get more money. Colin Dabkowski will declare victory, and the theater scene safe once again in Erie County. The average citizen won’t notice the difference. The City of Buffalo will continue to have no arts budget whatsoever, and will keep getting a free pass.

– Control Board back in the news: Collins’ mattress stuffing of stimulus dollars and reductions in the county payroll may have been bashed on this site, but they did keep the county control board (read: adult supervision) at bay. If Poloncarz rehires staff, reopens clinics, funds the libraries, gives more bed tax to the CVB, and/or spends stimulus money on road projects, expect the control board to step in. Plus, don’t forget Collins’ budget projections contained future deficits, wiping out Poloncarz’s opportunities to fund election promises.

– Speaking of staff: The largest organization Poloncarz had run previous to this new role as chief executive was the comptroller’s office, a small manpower pool by any measure. Whether because of a feud with Collins or from original desire, Poloncarz often tried to increase the size of his staff, a trend that seems destined to continue if he hires his “czars” for economic development and other issues. I bet we’re talking about a bloated county staff in four years: official positions, patronage hires, and extra advisors.

– Old tensions reignite: With no Republican politician of any stature left in Erie County (sorry Chris Jacobs) to serve as a convenient foil, the internal divisions of the local Democrats leap to prominence, a more high profile version of the Buffalo Common Council’s 9-0 in-fighting. Lenihan continues his Brett Favre impression, the Democrat majority in the county legislature fails to coalesce, and we hear more talk about Cuomo requesting a peace. Ironically, these divisions may magnify (or at least perpetuate) a city vs suburb division. Collins and Brown were at least partners in crime, and their truce eased difficult ECMC and parks negotiations. The Poloncarz/Brown tiff will not allow such official mutual public support.

Grand solutions: Poloncarz issued a number of audits and reports as comptroller, his clear duty to find efficiencies and waste. Some were small issues (cell phones and parking spaces), and some were bombshells: reorganizing all volunteer fire departments, for instance, a recommendation that landed him in hot water with local fire halls. Now that Poloncarz is in charge, he has the power to not just advise but implement. How many big radical solutions will we see from his office? How much support will he get from rank and file county staff if he sweeps in and “fixes” everything?

– Medicaid Savings: Of this prediction I am the most confident – fighting Medicaid fraud is the new Six Sigma. The effort will be public and deliberate. The individual cases will be private (of course) and the actual savings hard to quantify. The supporters of Poloncarz will declare victory before November 2015. The Republican candidate will note that Medicaid spending continued to rise each year despite fraud investigations. Your view of its record will depend on the tint of your partisan sunglasses.

Escape the Urban: Soak Up Fall

5 Nov

I’ve said it before: autumn is my favorite time of year. This season is proving it true again, with enviable temperatures, brilliant deep blue skies, and fully hued trees that seemingly refuse to give up their leaves. Three months in and it hasn’t let up yet.

Day after day, my wife stands in front of the large picture window at our house and soaks up the sun like a dog following warming beams to slumber in. She just stares into our forested back yard, watching waves of orange leaves flutter to the ground like paper snowflakes. I cast a questioning look at her.

“I’m forming a mental picture picture in my head. I’m absorbing as much sun and color and life as possible while I can. It’ll sustain me through grey February.”

Not a bad solution to survive our overcast and monochrome winters.

I’ve posted this article a day early to help you plan your weekend (the last nice weekend, finally?), to absorb as much fall as you can. But where to go? Let me make the following suggestions, from my Escape the Urban archives, in case you missed any key installments:

Go paddle to Strawberry and Motor Islands

Take the apple picking tour of the Lake Ontario shoreline in Niagara County

Hike Zoar Valley

Hike the east rim of Letchworth

Bike the Chatauqua Rail Trail (BTW, shameless plug, pick up a copy of this months Buffalo Spree for a guide to the Pat McGee Trail too)

Rediscover the Buffalo Lighthouse

Bike from Delaware Park to the Inner Harbor

Drop down into Devil’s Hole

Hike to the Eternal Flame at Chestnut Ridge

Buffalo: The Subtle Joy of Being Out of Time

2 Nov

Consider this the third and final installment of an unintentional series.

Two weeks ago I wrote about the triumph of economics on the field of ideas, its rise to prominence as chief societal concern, and its dominance of consideration and public discourse, not for the better. We can’t seem to have a conversation today about art, or space exploration, or football without economics in the fore, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

Last week, in honor of the successful Preservation Conference hosted in Buffalo, I wrote about our community’s collective prioritization of historic rehabilitation and the hoped for architectural tourism that would follow from it. Much of that article ironically hinged on economic considerations: the opportunity cost of pursuing preservation as a regional strategy versus other options (particularly on the economic activities within the buildings, not just the buildings themselves), the monetary cost of investing limited foundation and governmental grants in historic brick and mortar, the hoped for return-on-investment through tourism and quality-of-life, both for the citizens here and the businesses that might be lured by our aesthetic. The point was not overly groundbreaking or deep (Buffalo has spent considerable time, effort, money and political capital on preservation, and we’re about to spend a lot more . . . everybody good with this?), but as the lively comment section devolved into shouting and reflexive defensiveness about sidebar issues unrelated to the main point, I think a key comment by the Central Terminal’s Derek Punaro got lost. It stuck with me over the week, and after a bit of mental churning, yielded this article of reflection.

"From the Water" by Ken Root, courtesy

To paint with a very broad brush, conservatives focus on returning society to an idealized past (nostalgia for the Founding Fathers, biblical imagery of the shining city on the hill, etc), and progressives dream of an imagined future where workers are prosperous and rights are equal. In Balkanized Buffalo, we could divide our public commentariat into similar camps: those who love Buffalo for what it used to be (and the legacy of buildings that represent it), and those who desire a New Buffalo, one of a variety of flavors: new industries, new university, new growing population, new green code, new progressive politics that put aside the petty crumb hoarding, new buildings, etc.  The bogeyman of one group is often the champion of the other: nostalgia and honoring our history is a worshiping of obstructionism and resignation to our shrinking status quo; a desire for growth and change is a sellout of our unique treasures and gluttony of parking lots and failed silver bullets.

Yes, before you comment, not everyone fits neatly. And don’t tell me that a preserved Elmwood Village is the key to a progressive green future. I get it. I over-generalize only to make this point – when you focus so heavily on the history of, or the future of, our current built infrastructure, you ignore the present of what people are doing now. The nostalgia buffs walk through Buffalo and see an architectural museum, ghosts riding in trolley cars on the old lines and ethnic social clubs on the East Side. Entrepreneurs and vision-makers see new tech firms and food trucks free of the oppression of City Hall. Green coders and urbanista designers may see the blend, revitalized 100 year old housing stock, walkable neighborhoods, glass and steel mirroring art deco, new retail built to the curb using the best planning guidance of yesterday and today.

But old or new or both – none are what Buffalo is now. And the tug-of-war, overloading the ever more extreme teeter-totter, doesn’t create a happy medium. It has produced fractures and vitriol, leeching into debates about regionalism, economic development, and schools.

I would submit that the city of Buffalo itself is partly to blame for the tension. In parts of America with less rich history and infrastructure, there is little to inflame nostalgic passions. In places with less untapped opportunity, less need, less poverty, less political dysfunction, the progressives have little foothold.  Of course, our forbearers saw the potential here as well, and in a cyclical irony, it’s their investment that sparks the confrontation. 

So let’s get back to the first two posts in this series and Derek Punaro’s comment and my answer, that got me to focus this week’s column on the present. Derek asked if our community’s focus on preservation could spark preservation industries. I replied that we already have them, and while I find subtle joy in their existence, I went on dismiss them as not an economic engine for growth. A progressive trap I fell into there. Putting aside the economics (as I try to do regularly but often fail), let’s appreciate for a moment the present, and the remarkable nature of what Buffalo is: a place where old world artisans endure.

The City of Light, site of the Pan Am Expo, was a city of the future – great temples to industrial progress were made of plaster so they could be torn down tomorrow, thrown out with the last century’s garbage. The City of No Illusions bottomed out as the manufacturing dream died, monuments crumbled, the Bills lost and pessimism ruled. As our sturdy bones now rise, a moniker for the present is still unclear. Our future-through-the-past model skips over today.

I look at today’s Buffalo with fresh eyes and see not a relic, or a museum, or a parking lot, or a time capsule, but a place out of time.  

Pick an enduring image of our country from the last 150 years, a piece of iconic Americana, a foundational legend that we tell ourselves to define who we are, and you’ll find it in Buffalo; not preserved under glass, but enduring in the present. Grain still fills (some of) our elevators, and lumbering freighters still pull into port. Immigrants fill our ghettos, seeking opportunity and starting storefront businesses with bilingual signs.  Old polish grandmothers, who still only speak the mother tongue at home, walk to the Broadway Market in their dark babushka’s everyday for fresh vegetables, sausages and rye bread from a multi-generational peddler. Jazz and big band music spills out of clubs that boast an incomparable pedigree. Tug boats push unsentimental industrial barges up and down the Black Rock Channel, family farmers bring slaughtered cattle to market, auto workers cast engines and car bodies, freight laden boxcars rumble down our rails. Latin fills our mass schedules and church bells ring out the time for neighborhoods. The national guard meets for drill in a castle. The same art glass firm that installed the windows a century ago will repair them for you now. These aren’t skills lost and rediscovered. This isn’t a food movement, or green movement, or a craft movement, or urban movement brought back to life. These things never went away. They never stopped existing here.  

The dock hand. The immigrant. The craftsman. The farmer. The clergyman. The soldier. The artisan. The artist, the writer, and (until very recently) the Nobel prize winner. Butchers and rail yard workers. Barkeeps and raconteurs. If baseball players in shaggy wool uniforms, shrunken mitts and high black socks materialized on the grave of the Rockpile for an impromptu game, would anyone be surprised?

“Out of time” can have Pleasantville connotations. Is such an image one of Buffalo as shuffling undead? Has Buffalo become a museum to itself? Is it the memory of an echo long past? I differentiate between recreated history, costumed re-enactors playing the part, returning our history to us in faux canals and re-imagined destinations, and the legit endeavors that have simply persisted. Human endeavors, not empty structural shells and pretty edifices, overwrought historical markers that denote what used to happen within them. A sublime timelessness and continuity of lifestyle and werk

I don’t know if this makes us unique, or For Real, or superior, or a good destination for tourists, or more likely to attract companies, or better or worse for start ups, or harder to build a new Bills stadium, or bad for a renewal of the STAR tax rebate. I do know its good for me as a writer, to receive influences from multiple centuries. When I walk around Buffalo I don’t see the past come alive, I see the past endure. 

We can return to the economic discussions of the vitality of each endeavor on another day, about the growth required for their continued endurance, about whether persistence is another word for “slow decline” and poverty. I am content to leave those developmental, future considerations for another time. For now, in the present, find contentment in existence.

Escape the Urban: A Last Season’s Run

30 Oct

Last Sunday I guided two rafting trips down the Genesee River in Letchworth, from the Lower Falls to St. Helena, hitting Lee’s Landing, New Wave Beach, and Wolf Creek in transit. In the morning in my raft I had a father/son pair, the dad a firefighter from Rochester. In the afternoon I had two brothers and their young wives/girlfriends, mid-twenty something’s helping their greying father celebrate a birthday. I took my own father and brother-in-law on the morning run as well. Such an abundance of family is not coincidental; the river tends to draw people in such clumps, and even among the river guides ourselves are several husband/wife, father/son, and father/daughter combinations.

Wolf Creek (photo by Chuck Evingham)

The sun was a brilliant on a mid-autumn day, warming our black wetsuits by its mid-day crest. The foliage colors were at a peak, and blanketed the ridge tops, gorge rim, and isolated gullies in a ruddy gild. Even the water was high, a product of recent rain and a scheduled release of the Rushford Lake dam upstream. Score and combine each factor, and it may have been the best day on the Genesee all year, the best way possible to end an incredible season.

I remember the start of my rafting season distinctly, a mid-February evening trip to Batavia to meet with my future employer for the first time, my application having already been accepted and approved via email. The 2011 rookie class met for hot chocolate and soup at Coffee Culture, listened to the training manager discuss the driest boater safety and gear management study material imaginable, and then split up for another six weeks, waiting for the ice to break. I left Coffee Culture in a whiteout, and mentally lost in my own thoughts, wondering if rafting wasn’t going to be quite as exciting as I thought, I got physically lost trying to get on the thruway. In the blinding snowstorm I went east and not west, and after nearly twenty minutes of slowly plodding through the slush, made an illegal u-turn through the median to get back home. An inauspicious start to my year.

The days got much better from there. Early season runs on the high-water Cattaraugus, tiny icebergs floating by our rafts and frozen waterfalls tightly clinched along the Zoar Valley gorge walls. Fast runs down the swollen Genesee in mid spring, a chocolate milk runoff mix that roller-coastered us down the 5.5 mile course in less than an hour. And then, as the Catt season wrapped up in early June, and water ebbed on the Genny in July, big water returned on the Salmon River, draining the reservoirs of the Tug Hill Plateau, rapids with names like Titanic, Lusitania and Black Hole, the size of which we hadn’t seen since April. Only now the trees were lush and green, the water was warm tannin-stained tea, and bikinis and swim trunks replaced neoprene and dry-suits. Still, the season was only half over, and we ran the Genny through til October, the water rising as the drought broke, the season climaxing in last weekend’s top run.

Eight months on, four months off. Time to clean and repair the gear, carefully store it for next year. As I stood over my stationary tub in my basement, rinsing out my NRS Titanium gloves for the final time, I noted how far I had come. When I started eight months ago, I didn’t even know the name of most of the equipment now stowed in my rafting bag. I wore a borrowed lifevest, flimsy shooting gloves, horrid cotton socks. Laughable now, how ill prepared I was for working on a river. Now I have a new Astral Greenjacket rescue vest, multiple sets of neoprene layers of all descriptions, my own rope and throw bag, water shoes and wool EMS mountaineering socks. I bet every dollar I made on the river I spent on gas and gear. But then again, the money had little to do with it.

Genesee Gorge (photo by Chuck Evingham)

Beyond the thrill, beyond the undeniable fun of throwing a raft through the whirlpool eye of swirling froth, the point was to undertake and meet a new challenge. In March I couldn’t you the difference between a guide stick and a yard stick. I didn’t know how to teach a boat full of rookies how to paddle while already in their first rapid, only seconds from launching. I didn’t know how to fill and toss and repair and hump and stack and spin and ride 150 pound rubber rafts. I didn’t know how to hand a woman a size extra-large wetsuit without insulting her (still tricky). I didn’t know how to kick the nose around at Mystery Rock, to let the buffering pillow wave lull you to the hole, spinning your raft and surprising your passengers in a last second flip, standing the raft on its side. I didn’t know how to guide. I just knew I liked the thrill – the deeper pleasures came later.

I still have plenty to learn. I have a guide certification test to take this winter, and an in-depth water rescue course to complete next spring. But that doesn’t detract from the solemn satisfaction in having met a major goal. A year ago, when I put in my application, I was just hoping for a call back. Now I can say I’ve been guiding rivers all season, teaching first timers how to paddle and kids about geology, helping the timid face a challenge they didn’t think they had the guts for, introducing the wonders of the natural world to the city-bound and outdoor-adverse. Next March can’t come soon enough.

The Sausage-Making of a City’s Remaking

26 Oct

Do you think Mark Sommer even waited for the conference to happen to declare it a success? Or did he write the article weeks ago and just held off on plugging in quotes?

I tease, but only a little. By all accounts, pre-ordained or not, last week’s National Preservation Conference here in Buffalo was a great event that met its key objective: impress lovers of architecture who are in a position to influence other lovers of architecture. This makes me genuinely happy. I have heard about this conference nearly continuously since I moved back a couple years ago, and I hope it was everything its organizers wanted it to be.

But our community’s collective multi-year focus on the economic potential and saving grace of one conference still unsettles me. I find myself in the odd position of agreeing with Colin Dabkowski, the outspoken arts columnist at the Buffalo News. Dabkowski and I rarely see eye to eye – ten days ago he did all but declare the future of the local arts scene contingent upon this November’s County Executive race. (If our culturals are truly in existential jeopardy from a $500K cut and change in funding priority, then they can’t be near as robust as we’re led to believe. And while we’re at it, why only bash the county when the city is running a surplus too and has zero arts funding mechanism? But I digress.)

And yet, despite these past differences, Dabkowski hits the nail on the head in his latest column in this Sunday’s paper. Venting a bit of frustration that the current arts scene “floated under the radar” among conference attendees, he notes that without “Buffalo’s active culture” (emphasis his), then “our storied edifices would serve merely as pretty headstones.” Or to put it another way, we should invest “not only in what makes our city look good, but in what makes it breathe.”

Image courtesy

Dabkowski is an advocate for the arts, so he is standing up for the theaters, small galleries, and indie performers. But any active current culture could substitute – sports, business, entrepreneurial, outdoor, foodie – and his point would remain. I have argued for a while that what happens inside the buildings is at least as important as the buildings themselves, and it’s this matter of emphasis, brick vs blood, that has lain as a subtext of many Buffalo debates the last ten years.

Ironically, some architecture buffs agree – the pulled out, bolded quote from Sommer’s piece was from conference attendee Denis Superczynski, city planner from Frederick, Maryland: “I’ve lived in a lot of cities in the United States, and Buffalo is a special place. And it’s because of the people.” A throw away compliment is nice, but this wasn’t the National Trust for Special People coming to visit, and the Buffalo boosters aren’t selling cultural tourists on the opportunity to see a bunch of nice folks. The point is the pretty edifices, and Dabkowski is right to note that we should focus on what being is created here now, not just what is left for us as a legacy to enjoy. 

Dabkowski has an uphill battle, however, as do all not firmly (solely?) on the architecture bandwagon. In Sommer’s article, conference attendees noted that cab drivers and wait staff at local restaurants gave impromptu tours and history lessons. When did we become such an architecture-phile city that such a thing is possible? In stereotypical New York and LA, every waiter and waitress is an out of work actor looking for their next big break. Is Buffalo now a city of cornice buffs, where our equivalents are docents in waiting?

City’s have distinctive flavors and cultures, even our over-homogenized America, and I find watching Buffalo transform itself an endlessly fascinating exercise. It’s messy, it’s argumentative, and the process is without rules, standards or easily identifiable goal posts; perhaps a reason this conference, as a distinct measurable event, drew so much interest. How do you remake a city? Who gets to decide what a city becomes? Pittsburgh is regularly lauded for transforming from a steel town into the first Eds & Meds Rust Belt success. Who got to decide Pittsburgh was throwing in with its hospitals and universities, and not another industry? Who sets the agenda?

Image courtesy

Buffalo certainly used to be a hard working manufacturing mecca, and we still do make a lot of stuff.  But white collar jobs have out numbered blue collar ones around here for quite a while, and that self-image is hard to shake. As we wallow in past identities, former glories, and a wishy washy future, how did architecture stick all the way down to our cab drivers? There have been other efforts, other successes, that could have captured our imaginations. Dabkowski wants Buffalo to be known as a Rust Belt-chic funky arts town. We have our own constantly under-appreciated Eds & Meds effort, one that has generated far more economic development than architectural tourism, but is largely overlooked in plain sight. Newell Nussbaumer has tried to get the College Town label to stick on Buffalo, but some student housing ventures failed to take off, his site morphed into Navigetter, and no matter how correct the statistics (70K+ total students), unfortunately the vibe never resonated.

A place as large as New York City can afford to claim a number of identities: cultural capital, Wall Street, immigrant melting pot of opportunity. A provincial city like Buffalo doesn’t have the resources to invest in a number of images. There is a finite supply of capital, our best and brightest only have so many hours in a day, and our collective imaginations have a short attenti0n span. If Architectural Queen is what we’re going with, there won’t be lot of room for other nuances. If tourists are going to come see our crumbling castles (read: grain elevators), then it’s good our cab drivers have been studying up.

Ultimately, given a certain level of economic freedom to be mobile, each individual needs to decide what kind of city they want to live in. Buffalo is becoming an architectural destination. Renovations and restorations are going to (have been, continue to) divert political and economic oxygen from other projects and initiatives. No matter the personal reality you create – your family, your house, your job, mite hockey games on the weekends and a show at Shea’s when “Wicked” comes to town – the public discourse in the Third Room is increasingly about architecture. If an entrepreneurial spirit and access to venture capital is most important to you, I am sorry to say Buffalo is not trying to transform into Silicon Valley. I wish we had a broader outdoor culture, we are making real important gains, and I try to do my small part to encourage it, but Buffalo’s isn’t becoming Boulder or Santa Fe any time soon. If you love progressive politics and electoral reform, may I introduce you to Seattle. The bike rack bound for Portland is on your left.

Buffalo is morphing before our eyes, and while the messy sausage making in the middle is not complete, it is becoming clear to me that our community is on board with the final destination.

Escape the Urban: Preservation Edition

23 Oct

This week I’ll bend my own self-imposed “rules” on profiling urban venues to let you in on a preservation-related little known fact of the outdoor variety: you can walk out to the Buffalo Lighthouse again.

This is a secret few are seeking to keep; the opening was timed with the arrival of this week’s historic preservation conference, and stories ran in local news outlets. But based purely on my own experience, the word doesn’t seem to have g0tten out yet. I and my out-of-school sons were the only visitors over the lunch hour on Friday, and when I posted pictures on Twitter, several responded back in surprise that I was granted access. No special VIP pass here – just an open gate and a newly laid brick path.

Much works remains to transform public access into public destination. Grass seed covers chewed up mud fields, a consequence of the construction of new old tyme lamp posts and wrought iron-esque fences that separate the Coast Guard Station from the waterside right of way. Interpretive signage that hasn’t been scrutinized by curious eyes in a decade requires a bit of polish and repair. But these are garnishes that don’t distract from the main course: a view of Buffalo and Lake Erie that we’ve missed for a long time.

The term “windswept” barely begins to describe this spit of land and its 179 year old crown jutting out into the lake. The breeze makes itself known far up the mouth of the Inner Harbor, while pedestrians are still sheltered by ancient maples and a hardscrabble cluster of low coast guard structures. The wind builds along the narrow walkway out to the lighthouse landing, white crests forming on wave tops only a couple feet away.

A full gale is in effect by the time you arrive at the limestone spire, a howl that cuts through clutched clothing even on a relatively mild autumn day. The combined wind and water of all of Lake Erie is funneled and blown horizontally onto the very spot you stand, a low mound of dirt and rock reinforced with sheet metal retaining walls, a flimsy bulwark against the ceaseless assault. We didn’t stay long admiring the view, and I can only imagine life for those of the former lighthouse service, spending years or decades in such conditions, tending the lamp that separated storm from shelter.

The Tyranny of the Economists

19 Oct

The economists have won. Often called “the miserable science” by those who study it, economics has cleared all its foes from the Field of Popular Ideas. Is it any wonder we’re all so glum?

I’m not sure what championship date to put on the trophy, but I’m ready to award it after the start of the Occupy Wall Street protests, a movement that uses economic strata as its prime rhetorical conceit. That “money” is a popular subject is not surprising, especially now that we are in the middle of a seemingly unending recession. But money and economics is our favorite subject in good times as well, now to a near monopoly (pun intended) of public discourse, overwhelming our conversations about other things our society claims we love. Can you talk about hockey without the salary cap, the NFL without big vs small market teams, or movies without their revenue on opening weekend? The consumer motif pervades, from internet content to good government to healthcare reform to school-choice in education. The traction-gaining Libertarian movement extols us to see our daily interactions and relationships as simply mutually beneficial economic exchanges. Politics is about campaign finance reform and Buffalo architecture is about drawing tourism dollars. The business and economic side of every endeavor dominates.

Part of this is obviously harmless shorthand. Calling something a $100 million movie or $250,000 house is a convenient way to quickly express how popular or large something is. But words matter, especially when used so often and exclusively that the shorthand becomes the reality. We have very few discussions anymore about what government programs do, just how much they cost (see: the last year of Washington budget debates). Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta recently appeared before a Congressional subcommittee to discuss $450 billion in cuts over ten years. As far as I can tell, the talk was almost exclusively about the dollar figure, and not specific weapon systems, readiness, or the current missions of the armed forces. The arts funding debate in Erie County was never a comparison of the relative merits of the art/architecture/science draw of any particular museum or theater. To the arts proponents it was about funding cuts, and to County Executive Collins it was about attracting tourists. 

Economics has its place, but not every place. We don’t seem to collectively spend a lot of time on liberty or fraternity or art or astrophysics. . . at least, not without discussing their economic implications. We talk about market forces. We talk about tax incentives. We’ve traded Sagan for Krugman. The brightest minds of the last two generations are focused on how to make money from buying and selling money, wealth creation above all.

I can think of few segments or endeavors in American society not smothered with a business blanket. Perhaps the most mainstream unencumbered trend is the food movement, in all of its slow, local, heritage and organic forms. And while hardly a foodie myself, I can respect that I rarely hear how expensive a food item is in relation to how good it tastes or how healthy it is for you; the $7 steak is the land of gimmicky 1970’s Las Vegas promotions. That the foodiest amongst us often have the personal wealth to not worry about how much extra the foie gras topping costs on their $25 burger is perhaps part of the reason why.   

What is undeniable is that the two largest political movements today, the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, are both fundamentally about money. The Tea Party is focused on the government’s: taxes and debt. Occupy Wall Street is skipping the bankrupt government and is heading right to the source, seeking it in the only place it seems to remain. The Tea Party wants to keep the money they have, Occupy Wall Street wants the opportunity (read: money) they feel they were promised. In a former age, veterans marched on Washington for their bonus check. Note how the balance of power has shifted to the unelected corporation; economics has won.

It’s Occupy Wall Street’s focus on the lost opportunity that makes me perk my ears up. There are many reasons occupiers are piling up in town squares across the country. How could there not be for a movement that claims to represent 99% of the population? But one consistent theme is the fundamental unfairness of the “system.” Last Friday’s On Point program discussed the rise of for-profit colleges, the University of Phoenix being only the most well known. This $25 billion industry (see, I did it too), of which $23 billion comes from federal Pell grants and loans, sells the dream that the younger Occupy Wall Streeters are so disillusioned by. The story I keep hearing goes something like this: my parents and high school guidance counselor told me that if I went to college I could get a job. So I went to college, and took out huge loans, and now I’m unemployed. You guys screwed me. I’m the 99%.

Ignore for a moment that the parents and high school guidance counselors were basically right: the unemployment rate for those with a bachelor’s degree is 5.4%, versus 10.3% for those with a high school diploma. Instead, just note the tone, how different today’s rhetoric feels compared to the Civil Rights Movement of a near half century ago. I try to refrain from ideology, but I am guilty of this excess: I thought college was for thinking. Put enough smart thinking people together on a college campus in the 1960’s and ’70’s, and large political reform movements were born. And while economic opportunity was certainly part of the fight against racial and gender discrimination, so were voting rights, education, and our basic societal norms and relationships. Are colleges now simply glorified job placement centers?

That we waste college on the young is not a new thought, and fully exploring the topic of higher education reform would require another article on another day. But if economics has won, and college is just about a job, then its time our education system reflected that. Use Germany as a model, and start sorting out children to technical roles and middle management careers in grade school. Triple the size of the community colleges, and make business, accounting, marketing a such programs a two year stint. Suspend President Obama’s call for the United States to lead the world in bachelor degree rates (we’re currently at about 40%), and let only the history and philosophy majors take out $30,000/year loans to learn about Kant. The rest don’t need it, and we could reduce our collective debt load by eliminating loans for years of schooling obviously few care about.

If our most recent graduates don’t feel their understanding of the history of western civilization justifies their loan burden, then let’s save the liberal arts for the Great Courses series. Let’s transform college into a leisure pursuit of the wealthy middle aged. It’s the logical reform to match the goals of those in the system who feel like they have been most let down. Who feel disenfranchised and lied to enough to occupy public parks around the country and demand the opportunity they were promised. College is a mutually beneficial economic interaction, and the system has failed our recent graduates, members of the Millennial Generation, lauded as the most optimistic and idealistic yet. They have made their demands, and it is this: “You said we would have jobs and buy a house. Give me a job.”  Economics has won.