ON REAL ESTATE AND CITIES
Life is change. Everything is always fluid and evolving. And cities, the physical representation of our collective lives and every bit alive themselves, of course must change as well.
Often, the change in cities is slow and not scary, but sometimes the change is jarring or unknown, and that leaves its residents and watchers disoriented, even distraught. One such city, in particular, is Detroit.
Rebecca Solnit writes, in The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness, that “Detroit is a cautionary tale about one-industry towns: it shrank the way the old boomtowns of the gold and silver rushes did, as though it had been mining automobiles and the veins ran dry, but most of those mining towns were meant to be ephemeral. People thought Detroit would go one forever.” Of course they did. Many people do, regarding their own places. But nothing goes on forever. All things change. (Revolution, remember? Evolution, too.)
Solnit writes that “blocks of new condos that have been dropped here and there among the ruins: why there were built in the first place in a city full of handsome old houses going to ruin has everything to do with the momentary whims of the real estate trade and nothing to do with the long-term survival of cities.”
It’s clear that Solnit is anti-housing development. What is not clear is why.
On the one hand, regarding the “whims of the real estate trade,” she’s very right. It’s true that those in real estate often operate in accordance to their own discipline-specific ideals: architects want something beautiful, developers want to develop quickly and cheaply before selling to investors; investors primarily measure numbers (occupancy, sales or rent rolls.)
What’s not true is that housing is one for one – that a city could somehow pick itself back up and attract newcomers without offering anything more than empty lots or charred siding in which to house them. And of course there are a good number of houses – some of which are, it’s true, even handsome – but that doesn’t mean that newcomers yet feel comfortable enough in this new city to frontier their way on the blocks where this handsome house is neighbored by arson. Or, that aside, that these newcomers are at all motivated to the domestic tasks that owning a house – however handsome – requires. (Many newcomers attracted to Detroit are artists, after all. Didn’t we want them to do art?)
Solnit seems to draw a line in the sand between who is permitted to catalyze change, and who isn’t. Newcomers – as long as they’re artists – are welcome to change things, and of course the locals have every right to. But she turns her back on corporations – not organized bodies in general, but… what? those that make money, too? It’s a bit arbitrary. After all, we want the locals and the artists to take matter into their own hands; we want them to reshape Detroit, and yet we’re discouraging anybody from housing them, or from giving them housing that’s reshaping the landscape as well? We are instead insisting that they subscribe and tether themselves to the very landscape we are also urging them to mold?
“Artists in particular see the potential,” as they are apt to do. And, Solnit seems to suggest, that seeing potential means that one is forever privy to it; that one has domain over the course of a path if one gets to it first. This, of course, being the argument against the newcomers she is instead taking a stand against in San Francisco – those technologists (whom she sees as a different group than artists altogether) who do nothing but raise rents and ruin the market.
“All this is changing the character of what was once a great city of refuge for dissidents, queers, and experimentalists.” Well, of course it is.
Artists must know their place in the world. Like mothers, they sort of pave the way – lay the foundation – for what’s to come; nurse a place along and see it for its potential in its infancy. And when the place finally – almost inevitably – develops the ability to walk and then run and then work and develop economically, and the space for those earliest care-givers shrinks and then ceases to exist, an artist must understand that evolution gives way in this way.
“I think of it as frontierism, with all the frontier’s attitude and operational style, where people without a lot of attachments come and do things without a lot of concern for their impact.” Is this always true? And is it always bad?
ON HOUSES AND HOME
Solnit, I miss you.
I found you once upon a time when you enveloped me in Field Guide. I found it – found you – precisely when I needed it, and I devoured it and it encased me and it was exactly right. And since then, I’ve been searching for more of that, whatever that was, wandering across the plain, dutiful; devout, looking for this thing to come again. And at the risk of being admiring but also childish: I miss you, a “you” that I crafted, as we are so often apt to do, with those writers we most admire. (This being, of course, part of the plight of the writer.)
But my missing you is because your writing – so much of it – is political now (“now,” of course, being simply the timeline on which I am trailing you, book by book and essay by essay; a path that does not at all mirror your chronological publishing path.) There’s nothing wrong with political writing – in fact, I would be the last person, writer to writer, to suggest that you should use your craft to do anything other than what brings the most meaning to you. Selfishly, though, for myself alone: I found in Field Guide something I have never found in any other writer – and, so it seems – any other work. I found you – or perhaps you found me, simply in the way that I was waiting and wanting. But then, just like that, you were gone. Apart from the occasional essay, Field Guide seems to stand alone in what it is – you “are” – for me.
From my (again, selfish) vantage point: anybody can write about politics and events because anybody can search for facts. Fewer can do it as comprehensively or with as much passion as you… but nobody can write these esoteric, philosophical pieces like you do. Nobody writes like you do. At least no one I’ve found.
I wanted to read you and then write and, in my dream world, you would find my writing and tell me that you liked it. In my head, I imagined that I wrote in a way that complemented your thinking, and vice versa; that our writing went together; that your writing fueled my own.
I won’t try to harness you. And god forbid, should you ever find this, I most certainly am not trying to complain. All I say here is that the world is such a tremendously vast place, and we are all such different people, and some of us quite complex – perhaps even “troubled” – and have these thoughts that sit simmering on a back burner, and then we trip across another being, somewhere way off, in another time and space, and for a brief moment we see some light in their thinking – a flash of recognition that validates our own – and isn’t that what we all want anyway? – and though our rational side of course knows that it’s not fair, the emotional side of us flutters a bit and cannot help but think, “be still, my beating heart” and, by extension, “be still, my stranger.” Be this thing for me.
In “Inside Out, Or Interior Space,” I found an echo of this “you” I had molded for myself, and found condolence. And it’s ironic and pleasing, of course, that I should “re-find” you here, in this piece. (And I think the irony in this is clear.)
We tack tapestries and postcards and mementos onto walls. We do this with our homes and spaces and, you point out: “You feel it too, you who hold this book that is both a bundle of ideas and another twig to lay on the future fire of your home.” Yes, this is true. Of course this is true – each book, a twig. Of course I won’t pretend – won’t insult either of us to pretend – that it isn’t.
But don’t kid yourself, Rebecca. You are anything but a simple woman. And if I want to hold Field Guide close to my chest – if this twig alone sits on top of the bookshelf rather than in it – then… according to your own admissions of our existence and these little things we’re apt to do… then doesn’t my claim alone make it true? At least in my own little reality, which is how this works.
We do this. We collect things – gather up the things we see; things we cherish or disdain – and categorize their qualities, break them down in order to better understand them, even crush them a little in our delight. We search for things. We take them with us. We claim them as our own.
We build out these models to live into, “as though building itself could redirect and support an ideal life, the life we dream of when we look at houses… Spaces so elegantly negotiating inside and out.”
We do this, in particular, with our homes. The house is “a container for the uncontained… We sit surrounded by objects which perpetually express the oddity of our own temperaments and enforce the memories of our own experience.” And, of course, remind us of our hopes and aspirations.
We surround ourselves with the stuff that symbolizes what we seek.
It’s not enough to call this out, however; not sufficient to make a point and pretend that all “the stuff” is the same. What’s important is not in recognizing that we collect it or even inhibiting ourselves from doing so, but in cultivating a mindfulness in the process.
“Houses are cluttered with wishes, the invisible furniture on which we keep bruising our shins. Until they become an end in themselves, as a new mansion did for the wealthy woman I watched fret over the right color for the infinity edge tiles of her new pool on the edge of the sea, as though this shade of blue could provide serenity that would be dashed by that slightly more turquoise version, as though it could all come from the ceramic tile suppliers, as though all lay in the colors and the getting.”
There is a frantic nature to my search of “you,” too. But not all frenzy and pursuit is the same. There is something more to the want of ideas and words, and I’d like to believe that that’s different.
ON FOCUS AND PRIORITIES
So many of us distract ourselves with petty nothingness, most of us not realizing that we’ve succumbed to leading lives of glorified administrative tasks. We have these “assumptions that our lives require lots of management and that being managerial is our highest goal. Is it?”
We have embraced “the pettiness of keeping score” and cultivated “the souls of bookkeepers” in both our work and our personal lives. And we commit a lot of attention and resources to minutia – moment by moment updates, rather than the consideration of bigger ideas.
We have calendar invites and push notifications, but none of them remind us to live meaningful lives. On the contrary, they distract us from it. It’s not that reminders are inherently evil – I forget practical stuff all the time – but I also want to be reminded “to look at the distance and contemplate the essential mysteries of the universe and the oneness of all things.”
And it’s not just a depth and breadth of mindset that we’re missing, but a mindfulness overall.
“The slow food movement was often missed. It wasn’t food. It was about doing something from scratch, with pleasure, all the way through, in the old methodical way we used to do things. That didn’t merely produce better food; it produced a better relationship to materials, processes, and labor, notably your own, before the spoon reached your mouth. It produced pleasure in production as well as consumption. It made whole what is broken.”
In turn, by bringing these concepts to light, it also inspired consideration of them. This is not true for all who cook, of course. Or all who read or write or think. It is about deliberate focus rather than distraction – the use of a task to direct rather than divert from one’s day; the pursuit of understanding rather than, as in cooking, the anticipation of others’ delight and approval.
ON ART AND MARKETS AND CHANGING THE WORLD
We can change the world through both art and markets. These things do not stand alone, and neither one inherently contradicts the other.
Art – the creation of something; the communication of an idea through creativity.
Technology – the ever-evolving ways in which we create or do things
Market – the forum in which value is measured and/or defined. The only place, to be clear, in which the aforementioned creation is validated; the place in which its merit is established.
These concepts need each other – the creative energy, a change; the receptivity. Artists and markets do not stand in opposition, markets do not consist of technology alone, and artists and technologists are comrades, not rivals. Yes, artists can love tech and tech can love artists. I have seen it. You should too.
Pursuit of change in the world begins by pursuit of greatness within ourselves and pursuit of great work, with the greatness of the work measured by applicable markets.
In the same way that “only free people can care about slaves or prisoners and do something about slavery and prisons, which is why the project of liberating yourself is not necessarily selfish,” one might argue that influencing the flow of money is a whole lot easier when you have some. That the same position required of social justice lubricates economic justice as well.
There is no argument against donating time or protesting in the streets with signs, especially, of course, if these are the resources available to you. But there is also no argument against using a higher position of influence, if it is within your reach, or, furthermore, your pursuit of it. In fact, one might argue, if you have the capacity to strive for a more influential position from which to drive change and do not do so, you are doing society a disservice.
“Wheat farmers of North Dakota defeated Monsanto’s plans to introduce GMO wheat worldwide. But they didn’t do it by planting heirloom organic wheat or talking to school kids about what constitutes beautiful bread or by baking. They did it by organizing, by collective power, and by political engagement. The biggest problems of our time requires big cooperative international transformations that cannot be reached one rutabaga patch at a time.”
Is there anything to say that that big cooperative international transformations have to come from non-profits? Is there anything to say that change must happen in the public realm – through politics – and that any change originating from the private sphere is less worthwhile?
The pursuit of market presence and money and the construction of companies – even corporations – is not inherently evil. Evil is evil. Money – even a lot of it – is not. “You can make your own institutions beyond the reach of the state, which is also revolutionary. This creating – rather than simply rebelling – has been much of the nature of revolution in our time.”
Change is inevitable. Good change is honorable. Greatness exists in the self – the ideas of our self, the representation of them in private and public, and our advances made in pursuing them.