The story of “home” for most of my immediate family is a story of displacement, migration, settlers, and movement. For my parents generation, this meant moving homes, countries, and continents. For me, this meant moving within the bounds of this massive country, from coast to coast, north to south and north again. “Home” never felt particularly
permanent until I was in my teens, and beginning the journey of creating a home of my own, away from my immediate family and the place I had lived for almost half my life. I have many homes, some I’ve lived in for many years, and some where I never formally lived. “Home” was constituted by the communities I was surrounded by, and the walls and furniture with memories.
361 Harvard street, apartment 4, Cambridge, Massachusetts is a place that will forever be a “home” to me, and to my parents. Even decades after moving it is still a “home” we revisit,memorialize, and remember. Though I only lived there for 6 short years, it was “where my life began” (hooks, 6), and where my parents built their new lives together for years before my birth, immediately following the forced loss of their own homes. This small, old, brick apartment building, filled with tenants who have lived there so long they’ve become part of the fabric in the walls of the structure, is where they constructed a new life, a new family, on the edge of academic institutions that sheltered and fostered them when they first arrived, and within spitting distance from the friends and communities they called family.
The house we called home was a small 2.5 bedroom apartment in “mid-Cambridge”, 5 blocks from Harvard square, in an old brick apartment building with 6 floors, a large, creaky, wooden staircase, and a small open courtyard with a maple tree and a garden
tended to by my neighbor Ruthie. It had secret staircases in the corners of the buildings which opened directly into kitchen units. It had a bare back yard with a perpetually sodden strip of grass and a small concrete patio. The building smelled like old wood, wool carpets, and dogs of previous generations. After college, my mother and father rebuilt the inside of the apartment together, it was my fathers first architectural project as a new graduate: he removed the separation between the living and dining room creating one giant open space, with a half wall on which he and my mother placed mementos from their home countries. It had a long narrow hall with uneven wooden floors. My father had a study, which I was not to enter without permission, lined with books on sculptural metal shelves, and carpeted with a bright, primary colored, geometric colors. My parents bedroom was dark, with only one window, a bed which felt unimaginably large, and a small blue bathroom in the corner of the building which looked
out over the yard. My favorite room in the house was the kitchen, home to my mothers cooking, orange cabinets, the laundry machine, an erratic and irregular tile floor my father and his friend constructed from tile scraps, and the small window overlooking Harvard street where my mother and I would await my father’s return.
Once or twice a year we return to Cambridge, to visit friends and family who still call the city “home”, but to also visit the building we once called home, 361 Harvard street. I remember the day we left 361 Harvard St, packing up all my toys, our carpet, my parents’ books. I remember seeing my childhood bedroom bare for the first time: saying goodbye to the birds that lived in my windowsill, touching the tiled floor of our kitchen for the last time (a mosaic which my father and his best friend lovingly constructed), looking out the small balcony where my childhood dog fell to her death. I remember saying goodbye to my neighbors: Sonia, Joe, Monica, Ruthie, and scary Jaimie upstairs. I remember bawling as Sonia, my sometimes babysitter and cool teenage neighbor, tenderly handed me a green and yellow stuffed monkey I coveted from her bookshelf. And I remember screwing my face up into that 6 year old awkward half smile, as my parents snapped a picture in front of our door, as a farewell, for now. Every time we return, we snap the same photo, in the same place. Not much changes: the building is still
dark red brick, the gold numbers 361 embossed on the glass doors. The colors of the leaves change, the ivy creeping up the side waxes and wanes, and I grow older, but aside from that, the home remains. Every time I return and pose for a new photo I remember that this old and creaky building was my first home, it “represent[s] a place of promise and possibility, the location of all my terrors” (hooks, 6). As I stand, and freeze with the smile on my face, for just a second, I feel like I’m six again, leaving the only home I’ve ever known.
bell hooks speaks of the hills of “home” as a place where you would like to die. For my parents, 361 Harvard Street, or at least Cambridge, Massachusetts, is this kind of home for them. They will go through the motions, lovingly cleaning and up keeping the home they live in now, but everyone who knows them knows the plan: they will one day return to Cambridge. For me, this is less certain, I am too young to know where I yet want to die, but one thing holds certain of this
old home: everytime I return “, I [know] I [will] find there living remnants of all that was wonderful in my world of growing up” (hooks, 24)
I’ve been told, on multiple occasions, that it is clear I always grew up in cities. Not because I’m hip, or because I possess some kind of “street-wise”, but because, apparently, from the way that I navigate space, it is clear I never learned to drive.
I was asked this the first time by a new friend my freshman year of college. He invited me to his hometown in Bucks County Pennsylvania a couple hours outside the city to go on a photography excursion. The area he wanted to go was remote, a dead zone with little to no service, let alone GPS, so we made a deal, he would drive, and all I had to do was navigate.
The first half of the journey was an absolute mess, even with the GPS (especially with the GPS), the winding, seemingly irregular intersections of local roads and small highways that wove through northeastern Pennsylvania were completely foreign to me. Each time I was meant to navigate to an exit, I became overwhelmed and flustered by the illegibility of the signs and the monotonous landscape that gave me no indication of whether we had driven to the end of the earth or not really moved at all. I couldn’t for the life of me, find the balance between looking out for the indicators, and listening to the robotic and broken directions by the GPS. My friend’s generous patience had long since begun to wear thin and I’m sure he contemplated the relative ease with which he’d be able to navigate without my interference.
We finally made it to the portion of the trip where we had to use a map rather than the
GPS when w ran into a whole host of new problems. We were trying to drive up to the top of a small mountain that housed a quarry on one side and dense woods on the other. It was a rural area, full of unmarked roads, and every road we saw on the map was either closed or did not exist. I was sure I knew how to get to the other side from seeing the way the mountain sloped, and the way clearings opened up but my friend kept explaining to me that despite my remarkable self-assured-ness the 2001 stick shift early 2000’s Hyundai Elantra could not, in fact, do off road driving. Finally he resigned to my whining and insistence that I was sure of the way and we got out of the car and sure enough, we were able to hike to the quarry with ease, just not in a way that the car could ever make it. Once we arrived he turned, puzzled, to me and said “Huh, I guess it kind of makes sense, you grew up in cities.”
It made no sense to me at the time, we were in the middle of the woods in an abandoned corner of Pennsylvania. But I didn’t question it. I was just glad not to be lost anymore.
It happened over the course of the next few years in minor ways, particularly when I tried to give public transportation directions to people who did not grow up in cities. Evidently the language I had for explaining those directions only worked with those who grew accustomed to the same language. More often than not I ended up confusing those who sought out my help, attempting to explain the underground labyrinth of the subway system through a series of small turns, stairway directions, colors of signs, and minor landmarks.
The most recent time it happened was after a friend from out of town, and a friend from NYU and I tried to go to the Brooklyn Museum. My friend had parked the car on the far
side of Flatbush Ave, across Prospect Park from the museum, along a long swath of the park with no major entrances, just an endless fence in both directions and a thicket of trees. My friend from NYU insisted that we get in the car and drive all the way around as he knew there were only major roads with no easy short cut, but I insisted we should be able to find one. 15 minutes later, after tromping through muddy slopes, and tiptoeing across makeshift stone paths we arrived at the front steps of the museums. I had no idea how, or what streets we had used, and my friend said the same thing “Huh, I guess you grew up in cities.”
It’s not so much that I have an awful sense of direction, but that my brain is instead oriented for city navigation: slower, more backtracking, circular, slightly aimless, and landmark based navigation. It’s programmed to understand interrupted travel (such as entering the subway underground and emerging in a new location) rather than continuous travel of a highway. It’s programmed to understand a sort of aimlessness, of there being a destination but of the route as being flexible along a fluid set of vectors rather than as being definitive. And it is thoroughly and unaccommodatingly landmark and memory based. Drop me in the middle of a city and there’s enough sheer data and information and flows of people that I can eventually orient myself. But on the road, I’m going no where.
Maria Hernandez Park was my first “neighborhood park” in the city. Because I spent the first two years of university living in housing in Manhattan, I never felt part of a neighborhood, and so I never became acquainted with any of the public space in a way that made me feel like anything other than a tourist or a commuter, passing through with no real investment in the space.
Upon moving to Bushwick, Maria Hernandez became the predominant public space that I used for leisure. The “shape of the space” as Whyte put it, was different than any park I
had ever seen: uneven corridors, corner entry points, a vast vacant un-sittable hard area right in the center made of a series of staggered planes and edges. Yet the park was always thriving: shaved ice and churro carts at every stopping points, families sprawled out on the grassy areas, simultaneous wall ball and basketball games, dogs panting in the shade, joggers making circuits, and a throng of children and teens whizzing by one another on skateboards, scooters, and BMX bikes in the chaotic central pit.
It was a social space that was void of most traditional “sittable space” no high ledges, no long curbs, the grass unevenly divided and punctured by gnarled tree roots, and the benches oddly spaced so as to give a solitary air, and strangest of all, the entire park’s centerpiece was designed for a congregating around movement rather than static congregation. The central ovular plaza–covered in a mosaic of small hexagonal bricks, punctuated by shallow steps leading to no where, sprinkled with oddly sized planters (about 2.5 feet high, too high for sitting, slightly too low for leaning, and encircled with a ring of benches—is a hive of constant activity. The population of those in the central arena is rarely over the age of 25, with a few stray migrants here and there, hurriedly and warily darting around the blurs of wheeled youths occupying the center, in a nervous attempt to use the park as a short cut. The geography of this central space makes it clear: it is not the realm of slow or unsure movers, it is a space that belongs to the young, the active, the mobile, a place for precarious skate tricks, and trains of children, and all those who enter must either participate or move out of the way. If one wishes to watch, but not participate, the continuous ring of long curved park benches makes it clear that the position of spectators is on the periphery. A different kind of social interaction occurs there, as it is the aggregate of the numerous family members and neighbors of the young athletes in the center, a place to rest and chat just far enough from the commotion to be out of the line of fire, and close enough to scoop up a wounded warrior if necessary.
The eight lobes of the park, split by the gently curved paths, and direct diagonal bisectors,
are overtly purposed. The large inner northern lobe is allocated as a baseball diamond, the inner southern one as a complex play structure, the outer eastern one split into a handball court and a volleyball court, a portion of the inner western one as a basketball court, and the outer northern one split into two small dog parks. The remainder of the space is made up of gently sloping densely grassy spaces, covered by the shade of old trees, and occupied by picnic blankets and small food carts.
It appears, from the nodes of highly active spaces and the rest of the space as outward-rippling spectator spaces, that this is a space designed for communities, specifically communities with large youth populations. The activities come first, be it skateboard tricks, handball, or volleyball—and the social groups follow, clustered in rings within eyeshot of the activities. Movement is the central factor, but not directional movement as a commuter space, rather, social movement, communal chaos.
The neighborhood I was raised in, Wesley Heights in the Northwestern quadrant of Washington, DC is a pseudo suburban paradise nestled into the confines of a hollow semi urban capital. Though the hilly neighborhood is situated only a ten to fifteen minutes driving to any number of city centers (Downtown, The National Mall, Dupont Circle, Georgetown etc), it embodies many of the traits and characteristics of early New England townships and villages—with large single family colonial style houses, gabled roofs, old ginkgo, oak and maple trees, and the trademarked vast, artificially green, picket fenced front yards—The brief Wikipedia article on Wesley Heights concludes with the paragraph :
“Wesley Heights was developed in the 1920s by W.C. and A.N. Miller… It was one of the first master planned communities in the United States and featured such services as a shuttle to the Wisconsin Avenue streetcar and a community club house. It remains a wealthy residential enclave.”
If, as JB Jackson argues in his essay The Vernacular Landscape is on the Move…Again, “The House as a ‘moral unit’—a permanent territory with religious and social and economic identity capable of entering into an agreement with sovereign power” (Jackson , 26) then the vernacular of the homes and properties of Wesley heights embody developing 20th century WASP-y morality of privacy, propriety, decorum, and inaccessibility.
The houses–viewed through a mesh screen of unnaturally green, lush, trimmed, fenced, decorative, and obtrusively preserved front lawns–exude elite class status and maintain the evenly spaced, and normative respectability politics of the neighborhood with their feigned performance of welcoming community. In a 2011 article in the Washington Post, a resident, James Walton Magee is quoted saying “Wesley Heights and Washington have become: a place of vulgarians and interlopers who “build walls around themselves and hedges and don’t want to know anybody”” The front lawn, with its fences, trimmings, fertilizer, and infrequent use render living dwellings as ghostly tombs, by pushing dwellings deeper into the hypervisable shadows and up
hills, farther from “the street” and “the public”. If “Mobility was the ruling element. All things that moved…were held in common” (Jackson 27) then this space persistantly maintains the opposite: the lawns that secrete loud permanence that this is a private space, an individual one, not one for fostering community, but for containing and dividing.
These faces of vernacular emit the polar opposite of their lightly barricaded, heavily trafficked, concrete, shrunken counterparts which narrowly trim the faces of the three story multi family walk up homes that populate the neighborhood that I currently occupy in Bushwick, Brooklyn, right on the edge of Ridgewood Queens. These homes, still predominantly made up of Puerto Rican and Dominican families (resisting the constant spread of the gentrifying elite, of New York City transplants such as myself) secrete a different vernacular, an opposing morality.
The stoops and their tightly but weakly confined appendages are filled with perpetually moving temporary furniture, children’s
toys, barbeques, home improvement projects, plants, and flags are the site of a regular and frequent flow of visitors and community members pulsing fluidly into the surrounding sidewalk and street area in the summers, with children running in fire hydrants or running scooters up and down the streets, friends and relatives playing dominoes in front of an enthused crowd of onlookers, families grilling and drinking, suv’s with massive sub woofers blasting
bomba and bolero.
What is it about the closeness and hardness of the faces of these city dwellings that makes the city vernacular of Bushwick so much more compatible with ideologies of community, welcoming, and a fluidity between public and private?
In Mazanderan, you don’t just wear Hijab, you wear Chadors.
Not just any old black modest sheet either: Chadors covered in patterns, floral, paisley, and small animal prints. Mazanderani women are practical: they would never waste a perfectly good new sheet on a Chador.
In Mazanderan, it’s always a little chilly, even when you go inside, you leave your sweater and socks and turtleneck and jeans, even if every woman you are related to is cooking a separate dish in a house that’s less than 1000 square feet, and there’s open grilling pits and a fire blazing in the hearth.
In Mazandaran you use herbs. You a lot of herbs.
In Mazandaran you always stop for tea. Always.
When my brother was little he was very fickle and very picky. He would always keep his sweatshirt, hat, and shoes one even if he had been in the house for hours and the thermostat is set to 65 degrees and it wasn’t even that cold to begin with.
My relatives would say, “Well that’s so Mazanderani, he’s truly Mazanderani.”
In Mazandaran you always kiss twice on the cheeks, not just once.
Mazanderan, nestled between the grey and rock hewn Caspian sea, and the cold and winding rocky terrain of the Alborz Mountains is the home of my Grandfather, his sisters, and his 35 nieces and nephews. I honestly don’t think that many people are related to us by blood, but in Mazanderan (and most of Iran) those who you share food with are family. Men and women you know through your mother, those are your Dayi’s and your Ameh’s. Through your father (or your father’s father, but honestly it gets pretty convoluted and arbitrary quick) are your Amoo’s and Khaleh’s. Everyone is your uncle or your aunt. That is the spirit of the place. Those who you drink tea and eat cucumbers with: those are your family.
In Mazanderan you squat. A lot.
You almost always cook meat outside. Even if it’s raining. And as the meat cooks, you squat, and eat every tender piece as it churns over open coals. And you talk. You always talk.
Mazanderan is a surreal, comforting, unsettling, and natural sort of place. It seems to grow the way the earth tells it, but
plopped on top are still the remnants of failed industry, from various waves of housing booms: first in the fifties and sixties in the time of the Shah, and then in the early 80’s when the country thought it was rebuilding a new. Half built concrete skeletons dot the skyline, while close and low to the shore rests hundreds of fishing boats, all outfitted with years of wear and tear and additions and repairs. Everyone rides scooters. Every scooter has at least three people on it, usually a child.
It takes 6 and a half hours to get to Mazanderan from Tehran, and always through winding, waterfall crossed, stream lined, snow capped mountain paths. It usually takes a whole day, because you stop for tea. Almost all of Mazanderan is a beach, covered in pebbles, rocks, bolders and fossiles. When you lie down next to the sea you’re caressed by sea smoothed age.
Mazandarani food has a specific taste to it: like walnuts and Kiwis, and sweet small pomegranate, and tangerines (not clementines or oranges) and herbs whose names I don’t know in English. Lots of herbs.
You drink tea pretty much every hour.
It makes you pee a lot, which is okay, because in Mazanderan everyone’s bathrooms are outside, and you have to squat. Sometimes if you’re lucky there’s some toilet paper and a bidet. Usually there isn’t.
In Mazandaran when you leave a house
Mazanderan is a small, old, and relatively poor providence. It’s predominantly a fishing state, with small agricultural investments (mostly citrus orchards), and a relatively stable quarry industry. It is a suprisingly environmental place: people wash their cars with river water never taking extra water to clean things (the water is exceptionally crisp and cool coming straight from the mountains) you use every part of the animal, you rarely waste, you grow your own food, and you seriously carpool. Like 9 people in a tiny two door Peaugot kind of Carpool.
It has proud and has a long history of resistance, and when people hear you’re from Mazanderan, they know what that means. Mazandarani people are not just Persian or even Iranian. They’re Mazandarani.
In 2008 when word spread that the elections were rigged, rather than have their votes go towards and insane and inept puppet of the clergy (ahmedinejad) they recinded their votes. The whole state. Just decided not to vote. They still miraculously got “100% approval” but everyone in the state knew it was a lie. because no one voted.
Everyone in Mazanderan knows my uncle Mortaza. He has brother. Also named Mortaza, but he lives in the city and they
argue, after a drink or two, about who is the REAL Mortaza. Mortaza (the one not in Tehran) has a nut and pickle shop. He also runs an orchard, and a fish farm. People call him the Mayor of Mazanderan.
In Mazanderan when you leave a house you say “Das shomo dar nakoneh” or “You need not wether your hands for me.” As a sign of appreciation and to say goodbye. Labor is an integral part of Mazanderan.
Mazaneran is not just in my history, or my memory, or my blood. It’s in its specific taste: always citrusy and acidic. In the air: some weird combination of warm salty sea air and cold crisp mountain winds. It’s in the thick language and idiomatic particularities. It’s in squatting, cooking outside, and non western toilets. It’s in the aggressive nurturing and affection. It’s in the chadors billowing in the wind. It’s in the pride. The stubbornness. Every act, every taste, every breath, every sound, the pronunciation of the words, the ruddy cheeks of the people, is a way of claiming the Mazanderani aesthetic. It’s a refusal to be homogenized, to be co opted into the metropolitan westernized damaged nationalism that is contemporary Iran. It is a constant re assertion of a self, a rural self, a working self, a communal self. It is a resistance.
A Book on Mazanderan
On the Alborz
On the Caspian sea
One of the earliest times I came to New York was with my three friends from high school for Spring Break. It didn’t really feel like “Spring” break; more like warm, damp, grey break—but it still felt exhilarating as a 16 year old to be in “The Big City” without supervision. We stayed in Mariah’s grandparents old apartment, which her father had inherited after the death of his parents. The apartment, was not the row style, three story, dream like town house I was expecting from movies like Home Alone or a
penthouse like Gossip Girl. It was nestled in one of those massive brick laid, elbow shaped apartments that seems impossibly large and difficult to identify, and invoked (to my 16 year old brain, after dragging my suitcase from the subway through the hot grey fog) a prison like atmosphere. Once inside, though the space opened up to a warm, well loved, well stuffed apartment, wrought with treasures, and fabrics and textures and smells from over thirty years of comfortable living. This space, its smells, and red hues, and tea, served as the grounding point for the elusive and fragmented memory that remain from this visit.
There’s something about being in a new city while it’s raining. It makes you focus on specific elements, namely, the ground. I had been to New York before, to visit my friend, whose parents worked for the Swedish embassy and lived on the Upper East Side; but she had a small radius she circled in: central park, the Guggenheim, her school 10 blocks away—which was vastly different from the grimy, low, secretive space where we were on Spring Break. New York is typically a city in which you look up, you marvel at the sky scrapers, you stand in the middle of the street and admire the vastness, you look for a sign of your location in relation to the massive monuments to metropolis. It is a skyward growing city, and the eyes follow.
My memories of this space are fragmented, separated, not connected by time or direction; yet they are distinct and powerful. The tiny little Chinese bakery with the yellow sign, whose door you had to squeeze into to get the tender-est, sweetest, red bean buns I had ever had in any Chinatown, or with my father (who is Chinese and hates sweets). I remember the basement thrift-shop, surrounded by older Polish men smoking cigars—with its muffled sound and oppressively close walls, completely rendered invisible by the clutter of trinkets and fabrics plastered on its walls. I remember the Bialy shop, where Mariah had us stop every morning, to get the Bialys her father supposedly grew up on. I remember tastes, and doorways, and smells, and
thresholds, and basements, and cafes, and bus stops, and subway openings, but I cannot, for the life of me, remember the name of a single street, or direction. It has taken me about four years to realize it is on the line of Chinatown and the Lower East Side, and only because I stumbled upon the bialy shop by accident while looking for a wine shop near another friend’s house. Because of constantly looking down, these memories exist like floating bubbles, un attached to any geography or marker of place.
I remember a dirty, mangled, baby doll on the street, with the bizarre shirt which read “Kizzme”, and all my friends standing around it for a good three minutes in the rain, puzzling whether or not it was a name or a command. I remember this, but no street name or intersection.
As disorienting as it is, I relish in the fact that there are still parts of this city which are difficult for me to grasp. It is oddly settling: knowing that you’ll never really fully understand a place and how it functions. Every few months I end up in that area, only ever by accident, only ever without realizing. I know the feeling creeping as I start to look around and try to place how I know a fire hydrant which sticks a good two feet out of the ground and is half yellow, or the bottom of a lamp post which some well meaning street artist half heartedly attempted to beadazzle. Slowly but surely, the familiarity begins to seep into me, until all of a sudden I am hit with the recognition that I stared at the fish in this window before, or that I’ve been in this tiny shop which is only full of crystals in another life.
This is the part of the city, I only know, looking down.
In previous posts, I have discussed the presence of “Non-Places”. The layout of Washington DC which enables the trafficking of cars full of tourists, commuters, and government officials, but which is purposely designed to segregate residents. Palo Alto, with its sloping hills and identical landscapes. Areas of gentrification, with their carefully constructed young adult playgrounds for passing artistic twenty something’s just looking for replicated uniqueness to temporarily call home. I would like to discuss a different type of “Non-Place” one which is not so from being “inauthentic” being a site for “Mass Culture” but rather because it was abandoned: it was supposed to be permanent, but it was instable. This Place is Centralia, Pennsylvania.
In the fall of 2012, my friend Caleb, a photography student who grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania (and was prone to driving adventures) invited a group of our friends to go to a town called Centralia. “It’s a ghost town” he said, “It’s the town that horror movie Silent Hill is based of” he cried, “There’s been a fire burning under it for fifty years.” We drove for hours first on interstate highways, through small towns, and finally, down abandoned rubble roads, to what seemed like open rocky field space, like an abandoned quarry, until Caleb finally said “well this is it, this is Main Street.”
We exited the car in the middle of what essentially looked like a massive pile of dirt, covered in some rubble, and shrubs, and a lone sign which warned of “Dangerous Fumes”. In many places the earth was bright red, and others dark grey. As we began to look closely we could see the edges of a paved road, the piles where houses once stood, an old graveyard, some foundations, a few broken house numbers, a bit of curb, and the bases of fire hydrants. There were imprints of town everywhere , but no town, to residents, only other stupid kids like us, come from the area as a rite of passage.
As we walked through the shell of the town, we could see in the distance, industry moving forward: the smoke billowing from massive quarries miles away, tiny white wind mills dotting the crests of the mountain range, vacant eerie lines of absences of trees where the landscape had been erased to place natural gas pipelines. Yet the town we stood on, was no longer there, even the organic matter scarcely bared to return, leaving only low shrubs just barely peaking through the wreckage of concrete, glass and shingles slowly being swallowed by the earth. The most bizarre element by far was the abandoned interstate, a massive strip of well paved asphalt road that literally was split in the middle as if the doors of hell would swallow you up whole, and then decided against it halfway through. Over a mile of highway, split more than a foot across, rising like a molehill in the middle, and frozen that way. It seemed that local youths used it as a rite of passage, and, wading through the nettles off the newly constructed interstate, would hike to this cavern and spray-paint all manner of art, tags, and declarations of love on the forgotten roadway. This was the eeriest site to me, for this had not yet been erased, it was still firmly rooted in the earth, as if it had been used last week, and all the patrons of the road had disappeared overnight.
And now the background: Centralia is a town, more referred to as a “ghost town” with less than five residences, in Columbia County, Pennsylvania . It is a graveyard: an abandoned mausoleum to the coal industry of the turn of the century. In the mid to late 19th century Anthracite coal was the booming industry of north eastern Pennsylvania. Fissures of it were being discovered along mountain ridges and it proved to be a valuable industry. The first mines of Centralia were established in 1856, two modest mines, but in under thirty years, by 1890, a massive network of mines were created surrounding and under the town, with over 2100 residents in the community of Centralia, all involved in the Coal industry. After the great depression and the flossing of the two great wars though, Coal took a massive hit, and production slowly dwindled and coal production began to slow down, and the town ceased to expand.
And then came the fire. For memorial day of 1962, the resident of the town hired the local fire department to safely dispose of all the trash in the town. The trash was taken outside the outskirts of the town to an abandoned mine which was deemed “safe” to be burned and left. What they did not realize was that even the dormant mines connected to a network of fissures of natural gas and coal which webbed throughout the earth of the entire borough. Though the residents became aware that the fire had not been extinguished in the years to come, it was not until 1981, when a 12 year old boy named Todd Dombowski was playing in his front yard, when a sink hole opened beneath him and nearly killed him. It was at that point that the US Government attempted to intervene, first with 42 million dollar relocation projects, then by attempting to buy people out of the town, and finally by officially condemning it and evacuating the space by way of force. In 1982 the town had a little over 1,000’s. By the time we arrived, supposedly only 4 stubborn locals remained, and they sure as hell didn’t come talk to us.
Centralia was a Non Place, but it used to be a Some Place, with industry, community, business, schools, churches, graveyards, dead and live inhabitants. When the earth ceased to yield a bounty, the residents still remained, attempting to create a place without the infrastructure it was built upon. But finally, the earth literally fell from beneath there feet, and now, all that’s left, is the ghost of a town that once was, left behind, with only a faint imprint fading away.
A HIGHLY recommended episode of This American Life “Fire” the story of Centralia
Caleb Savage Photo: Where more images of “non-places” and remnants of the coal industry in Pennsylvania can be found
Architecture has always been a bit of a contentious subject for me. Growing up my father said “I’m the only architect you’ll ever meet who never wants to build a new building.” On the weekends he’d take me to cathedrals, churches and chapels to understand the ways in which spirituality translated into physical spaces and light and feelings and cool stone, dark wood, and shining steel. Then we’d emerge into the bright spaces of the day and explore the open houses of colonial row houses, dark vaulted farm houses, and bright empty modernist homes. He showed as much affinity for colonial salt houses and gothic churches, as he did for Italian industrial designs, and Scandinavian futurist, but he always questioned me, asking me to focus on lines, edges, light, absences, corners and planes in such a pointed way that I felt sure, especially as a small child, that I MUST be getting something wrong.
The campus of MIT, unlike most of its counterparts in the densely packed university ridden landscape of Cambridge Massachusetts, was not a radiating campus of colonial buildings, old brick houses, and grand revolutionary pillars and entrances. It’s campus, instead, is composed of vast, asymmetrical angular spaces, littered with hulking remnants of brutalist, futurist, and modernist architecture—massive science halls of right angles, concrete and portals, and shining steel and glass. As a young child, it seemed like a simultaneously ancient and futuristic playground so profoundly disconnected from the majestic, museum like feel of the Harvard campus.
No building was more puzzling than the chapel at MIT, where we would inevitably make a stop, during our routine walks through the alleys, plazas and campuses of Cambridge. The building, by all accounts, is bizarre. Simultaneously starkly contrasted and silently camouflaged in its surroundings, a dense pocket of tall thin birch trees plopped into the center of a green. The “Start From Zero” attitude which Tom Wolfe so contemptuously attributes to the Bauhaus aesthetic/philosophy/ideology seemed to be embodied in this structure which my father affectionately referred to as “the trashcan”. From the outside the squat, circular brick building was not, to me, particularly affective. With it’s ruddy textured brick, lack of windows, and low stature nestled in a shallow moat, the building was hardly stunning, but hardly offensive either. It was an abrasive contrast to the grandly intricate, high vaulted, challenging, and intimidating structures of gothic cathedrals, or to the homey, wood hewn, creaky, light leaked chapels of the New England countryside. It seemed like nothing inside this space could possibly inspire spiritual awe.
Yet upon entering through the corridor of stepping patterned stained glass (which from the outside seemed like nothing more than a muddy window) that the space transforms and breathes into an unexpected and unfolding puzzle of space. The inside gives the impression of being far larger than the exterior indicates, and in breaching the space, one becomes absorbed into the light, vacuous, fluid, silent space of the Chapel.
Designed by Eero Saarinen—a Finnish American industrial futurist of the mid 20th century—the architect of the St. Louis Arch, and JFK airport, the space was an ode to ratios, to machine like perfection, as well as human fluidity.
The first thing you see upon entering is the light: bouncing and dancing from the moat exterior, under the supporting arches through the secret windows, and back up into the ceiling. It then reflects across the tumbling mobile (designed by Harry Bertoia) a cascade of tiny metal slivers which capture and release the light into and around its space, before being absorbed into the massive, circular skylight. It gives the space the impression of just being a vessel for stray light, so much more mobile than the static shadows of a gothic cathedral. I remember, as a child, feeling as if I had slipped into a secret under water space, blocked off from space and time. The edges, unlike the exterior, were not that of a smooth circle, rather, wavy, and changing, mimicking the patterns of light as they bounced from the exterior, to the moat, to the ceiling. In the center of the room, stands a marble altar, smooth, white, and utterly featureless–itself, just another platform for light to sit, and dance.
I always felt that my dad had an affinity for older buildings—the unintentional asymmetry brought by the passage of time, the impressions in the floors where feet had shuffled, the little missteps in intricate patterns which bore the mark of the ancestral hands which wrought them. He spoke of the character of a space, and its history, as if it were living and breathing. The way he spoke of newer buildings, modern/post-modern/post-postmodern structures was more in the way of a puzzle or illusion: to look for the tricks the architects hand created, find the what disciplines and problems were being addressed or subverted, what was being played with or drawn on, as if the space existed as a referent only, without it’s own character.
Yet the chapel was always different–for both of us.
While it did not have the inherent “Character” that a two hundred year old, stone hewn, monument did, it had a particular feel, a texture, which made it feel as if it’s quiet, sleeping presence came to life as you entered the space. As a young person, small in the space, I felt in awe, but not intimidated, sealed off, but welcomed. The waves of textured brick seemed like a secret sheathed in a hard, brutal, minimalist shell. The space, though it was most certainly produced by an impetus to be “non- bourgeoisie ” (non denominational, unmarked, un elaborated, minimal) the space does not seem like it is made by or for machines. Rather as if it has always rested there, waiting to be activated by light and a human presence. Rather than the loud echoes of imposing silence impressed by a “traditional” or “bourgeoisie” church, it’s presence was quiet, humming, ascending.
Some Resources on
In all my cultural imagination of “the suburbs”—TV sitcoms, the era of LIFE magazine, eerie forewarning thrillers, or songs—the only consistent word which comes to mind is “sterile”. “Safe”, “Clean”, “Family Oriented”, are all built in concepts when speaking of the rise of massive, sprawling, planned communities which took rise in the US beginning after WWII. That was the goal: following World War II, the Great Depression, leading up to White Flight, the suburbes were a consumerist utopia, designed to create “wholesome” “safe” spaces, to mass produce the constructed base module of American ideology—the Nuclear Family. It was mass produced safety, sterility, democracy. It was a physical manifestation of “the dream”: for “everyone” to be able to reach middle class comfort, consume state of the art appliances. It was manufactured Sterility, without all the horrors of class anxiety, racial mixing, and job competition produced by urban living.
I’ve only lived in one true suburb in my life, Menlo Park, California (about a half hour outside of San Francisco), but unsurprisingly, this is the part of my life that I have the hardest time remembering or orienting. Thought I was fond of our house (One of 200 split level beige, a symmetrical, modern, cookie cutter designs pumped into the area in the late 70’s) with James Howard Kunstler’s characteristic wall to wall carpeting, beige accents, brand new appliances, and “trees no thicker than my father’s thumb”. Of the things I do remember there, they are geographically isolated: my house at the top of a series of winding sidewalk-less hills (which I was ironically not allowed to bike on alone), the community tennis court and pool where I withstood unbearable and terrifying lessons with my father, my school, Las Lomitas Elementary (itself, a significantly more vast and sprawling institution than any I had ever attended living in cramped Cambridge Massachusetts), Joanies (the brunch place my parents took me to on Saturdays), and the long bridge into San Francisco. I had no capacity to understand how these spaces related to one another, and still have trouble remembering it, despite the fact that I was at the capable age of 7-8, and have vivid memories of the landscape of Cambridge, which I only lived in from birth to age 6.
My memories of Menlo Park are that of vastness, beige, repeating patterns, and isolated spaces. It was the first time I had to sit in a car for extended periods of time to get to every day places. I developed car sickness around this age, a memory I have no trouble retaining. In Cambridge, I had landmarks–Churches, cobblestone streets, buildings covered in ivy, ice cream parlors—centers I could refer and relate to one another. In Menlo Park there was nothing. In my first year there, the first, and last, time I was allowed to bike alone I got extremely lost, winding from cul de sac to cul de sac, looking for a marker, until I finally found a kind stranger who let me call my parents. Every hill was the same, every tree the same age, ever street without sidewalks, and every house a replication of its neighbor, it was “nowhere” in every sense of the word. Hot, dry, expansive nowhere. My parents didn’t let me bike alone anymore after that.
When we moved to DC when I was 8, it did not return to the “city”/”town” feel that Cambridge had, nor did it replicate Menlo Park’s sprawl, rather, it was something in between. Our house was in the affluent neighborhood of Wesley Heights, born in the early ‘20s as “one of the nations first planned communities after WWI” (See link to Wesley Heights below). It is a neighborhood nestled between the deep and mossy Glover Archibald Park, the Potomac River, and the neighborhood surrounding the National Cathedral. The area was some of the earliest converted farmland in the city which “appears suburban while retaining active commercial areas.” It boasts two small shopping areas, an elementary school, a restaurant, a dog park, Church and a college, all while being a 15 minute drive from the center of the city. The houses, though not exactly the “cookie cutter luxury” style of the 50’s, is a revivalist of colonial styles, with variations of large old wood and brick houses, with huge yards, and old trees. My house itself is the picture of suburbia: white colonial house, white picket fence, two kids and a dog.
The thing that keeps it isolated from the “hubbub”’ of urban life, is the lack of public transportation. Though it was one of the earliest to have public bus and trolley access, the predominantly white nationhood’s residents have prevented the expansion of the metro system into the area. Despite the fact that it is not a “sprawl”, and has more markers of individuality than Menlo Park did, it still cultivates the same measure of sterility, isolation, and upper middle class comfort, the Suburbs are supposed to invoke. The goal of the area is to forget you’re in a city. Rather a safe, white, sterile haven, a wholesome oasis in the middle of a vast, urban landscape.
The Effect of Urban Sprawl on Inner City Development RECOMMENDED ARTICLE
Little Boxes – Malvina Reynolds
Wesley Heights, Washington DC
I was always particularly terrible at whatever form of cognitive skill it took to transform the four dimensional experience of moving through a space into the two dimensional format of a map. My Mother isn’t very good at it either; the general rule is to go in the opposite direction of whatever she thinks is right. I’ve mostly been relatively good at navigating spaces in relation to memory and landmark, and vague hunches, but I cannot, for the life of me, arrange them in relation to one another from a distance or even begin to order spaces on a plane. Because of this, from when I was young, my father and (great aunt) tried to mark out paths for me between spaces I would be frequenting immediately after we moved in 2000:
“Remember if you see the large brick house with stone pillars and one of those grey ceramic dogs at the top of the steps [I don’t think it’s there anymore] is at the end of the street by the hill next to the house,
“To get to the school you go “Left out the font door of the house then right up the hill for four blocks then past the building with the lion holding the flag”,
or “the bus picks up right at giant apartment complex uncle lived at that had a pool filled with retired citizens”,
DC, for me, is a particularly bad city for that type of disorientation. Staying within my permitted radius in elementary school it wouldn’t be that hard to convince yourself you’re in the suburbs. From where my house was you wouldn’t know I lived ten minutes from downtown in the capitol city. Some parts of DC make it a bizarre artificial-feeling city with a lot of large open spaces that go from being bustling nodes of commuters, government officials and tourists to being open dead space at night filled with giant tombs and monuments to dead men. It has an excess of edges and the type of paths that are designed to facilitate movement radiating out from the center constantly urging people in while cycling others out. It has a way of cutting a district into asymmetrical and pseudo-in navigable pockets which in turn are so inaccessible to one another they may as well be in different states. You can have a neighborhood, like mine, which paints a picture of suburbia, right next to the “historical” university/shopping district, as well as the massive stretch of monuments that occupies the center and edge of the city. It feels massively imbalanced: with this monstrous open space which is simultaneously the center, and one long river bound edge.
It, to me, is not what Lynch would call a “Legible” city. Rather, it may be legible in the sense that an order can be made from an areal space, but not from a grounded position. The infrastructure of the city is designed, with every manner of path (road and public transport), designed to facilitate the movements of outsiders into the locus of the city, but the segregation of residents who between the arteries which collapse into massive transit loci and explode in the opposite direction, dictating the pulse of movement in and out of its vortex.
I never learned to drive either. So my way of navigating, on a bike (which Is not picnic in the thick, wet, hilly summers) and the subway (which only navigates through down town and closes at midnight) is an entirely different one than my parents ever had. By the time I was 12 I had a bike and was allowed to go wherever I could manage (again, a very hilly city). So I started cutting across the arteries and finding my own little pockets to explore, unfortunately, I have no idea how to tell you how to get there
Some Pockets, Landmarks and Orienting tools
Additional Reading on Race and Planning in DC