Sunday, October 13, 2013

In the Realm of Ideas

When I was eight or nine years old, my family lived in a two-room apartment on east 60th Place in Chicago. It actually was the back two rooms (kitchen and dining room originally) of the second floor of a two-flat building that had been divided into three separate apartments, rather than one. There are many memories that I retain from the short period that we lived there.

My maternal grandmother would watch us kids for my mom and invariably would decide that she should clean out the refrigerator. The result would be a cake made from whatever leftovers happened to be there, and I do mean whatever! The amazing thing is that even pan-fried calf’s liver and the dreaded brussels sprouts actually could be turned into a tasty snack. Well, as long as you didn’t watch her prepare it! In those instances, ignorance was truly bliss.

My mother had a corselette - all black lace and red ribbons - that I thought was the prettiest thing ever. So, one day I wore it to school, complete with toilet-paper enhanced breasts. The look on my mother’s face when she picked me up, about an hour later, was a perfect version of her famous “How did I raise such stupid children!?” face.

There was the day someone’s cousin or the other brought home a container of the wax used to coat milk cartons. All of us neighborhood kids gathered in the yard behind my building and made casts of our hands. I can remember being terrified to dip my hand into the hot wax and then amazed to find that after that first layer, the cast could be built up completely painlessly. I think it good fortune that soon there was this chorus of mothers shrieking at us to “put out that fire” and “get your tail in this house” and from our porch, “No-reeeeen!” which translated into “all of the above.” It’s really no telling what we would have decided to cast next.

But, my favorite memory of all from that time are the days that I would scurry across Stony Island and the adjacent sliver of parkway and run across Museum Drive to the Museum of Science and Industry. There was no entrance fee in those days, so I was free to wander among the exhibits at will. Mostly, though, I would spend the hour or so that I had before I needed to be back home just sitting in the Great Hall and thinking ... just thinking. Not worrying or plotting or planning, just thinking. It was grand. It is this treasured memory and its many intellectual influences that continue to make me take any and every opportunity to visit the Museum of Science and Industry.

In 1989, the museum did it again and fostered another novel direction to my thinking. One that I still maintain and expand. The exhibit was Frank Lloyd Wright: In the Realm of Ideas. It was a traveling exhibit, a highlight of which was an actual life-sized example of Wright’s Usonian Automatic home installed on the museum grounds. I still covet that house. But mostly, I retain the contemplation of the lifestyle the Usonian design both stimulates and allows.

 The Frank Lloyd Wright Usonian Automatic house of hollow-core concrete block was designed so it could be built by anyone." The Chicago Exhibit was held from June - September 1989 at the Museum of Science and Industry. Photographer, Rich Hein. Date: 6-5-89. Location: Museum of Science and Industry.
Wright is known for many attributes, notably his Prairie Houses, richly detailed, labor-intensive designs for wealthy clients. Yet, Wright also believed that the basic building block of American Democracy was the freestanding private house. There was a quote in the exhibit that I have unsuccessfully searched for. Perhaps I made it up. But, it is the notion that the citizens of a Democracy must have a sense of “individual autonomy” in order to effectively contribute to the collective well-being as they direct government.

Interior view of Usonian Automatic House. Exhibition. Museum of Science and Industry. Photo acquired from the archives of the Chicago Tribune.
This has so many ramifications, this individual autonomy; the capacity to make an informed, un-coerced decision. I believe that acquiring this capacity is part of the initial trajectory of human development. Could it be that the toddler first crawls then runs at top speed just because she or he can? That “no” becomes a favorite word because it is a test of control? Likewise, the toddler’s insistence on personal choice in clothes is to stand against the tyranny of adults, albeit well-meaning adults. And on and on. With time, the natural desire for individual autonomy becomes informed (some might say suppressed) by socialization. Such that by the time we have control over, or rather the responsibility to select where we live, it is questionable whether the individual decides or the society decides. But anyway ...

The example of Usonian design in the exhibit offered the following elements:
  • A central space that is the hub of the home. where residents come to be together. It is uncluttered through a use of built-in furnishings and filled with light from window walls. In the exhibit version, this great room was bordered by a corner area that featured a division of the tall space into an intimate dining area and an upper-level office/den space. The dining area flowed into a galley kitchen, which maintained the height so that there were extensive built-in cabinets for storage.
  • One entered the home though doors which were mirrored across the entryway by doors which opened onto a terrace that ran the length of the house adjacent to the great room. This section of the house contained a hallway of built-in closets/storage areas on both sides and opened into bedrooms (the master bedroom had access to the terrace). The bathroom was at the end of the hallway.
  • Flow patterns allowed movement from the entry to the kitchen, the hallway (and thus, bathroom and bedrooms), terrace area, and great room. The great room allowed passage to the dining area, office/den, the kitchen, and back to the hallway.
  • The bedrooms were small with built-in beds, shelving, and drawer space, allowing room for a chair and side table.
  • Lots of interior wood. Everything in its place and a place for everything.
The intent of the Usonian design was that it be modular and allow a homeowner to determine configuration based on personal need and desire. It was also intended to reduce costs by allowing the homeowner to assemble specially-configured wall modules and other aspects, leaving the skilled labor to be completed by professionals. Another cost savings was in the built-in elements. They also minimized needed free-standing furniture. And, there were features which also addressed maintenance aspects.

I was particularly drawn to the expectation of participation. Like with the building plans and prefab homes you could once buy from Sears and other catalogs, it required input from the buyer in the configuration of the home. To have input has rarely been an affordable option. Yet having input is an important element of individual autonomy. It informs one’s thinking in ways that simply saying yea or nay does not.

So, Frank Lloyd Wright and time have passed and the Jeffersonian preference for open space, the pastural idyll, has given way to urban sprawl, and, biases of myriad kinds have given way to the decline of cities. And, unfortunately, the Usonian home has few existing examples. The horrible burst of the housing market bubble curiously does not seem to have generated much conversation around housing. I suppose it is reasonable to think that people are more focused on mortgages, foreclosures, and the myriad other important issues facing America in this 21st Century. Still ...


The mission of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is to “Create Strong, Sustainable, Inclusive Communities and Quality Affordable Homes for All. The HUD Strategic Plan articulates the goals that will guide and stimulate its activities to fulfill this mission during the FY 2010-2015:
  • Goal 1. Strengthen the Nation’s Housing Market to Bolster the Economy and Protect Consumers
  • Goal 2. Meet the Need for Quality Affordable Rental Homes
  • Goal 3. Utilize Housing as a Platform for Improving Quality of Life
  • Goal 4. Build Inclusive and Sustainable Communities Free From Discrimination
Wow! And that’s before you even get to the subgoals, strategies and measures that support these four goals. Here are the subgoals for Goal 3:
  • 3A.  Utilize HUD assistance to improve educational outcomes and early learning and development 
  • 3B.  Utilize HUD assistance to improve health outcomes 
  • 3C.  Utilize HUD assistance to increase economic security and self-sufficiency 
  • 3D.  Utilize HUD assistance to improve housing stability through supportive service for vulnerable populations, including the elderly, people with disabilities, homeless people, and those individuals and families at risk of becoming homeless
  • 3E.  Utilize HUD assistance to improve public safety 
It is notable that HUD has newly adapted a collaborative stance toward its mission. The strategic plan outlines a variety of programmatic approaches to working with local communities to address their particular needs. This seems to me a focus whose time has come, finally. I was also struck by the emphasis on counters to discrimination. Given the institutionalized nature of so many of our society’s biases, every element of the government needs to have such an emphasis. But, I will make a confession.

Reading the HUD materials made me extremely conscious, once again, of how much redundancy exists in American government, top-down and bottom-up. Much of the current struggle in the Congress has to do with how government will utilize its resources. It has been portrayed as the struggle between entitlement programs for the rich versus entitlement programs for the middle class and poor. This portrayal is accurate, but it also delineates why the struggle will not contribute to the strength and stability of the United States of America.

The available knowledge base, technology and resources that America brings to bear on the vision of our identity in this new century remain abundant. But, each of these is overshadowed by our very unique brand of capitalism. And in the shadow of capitalism, we will not do what most needs to be done - that is to return to first principles as we restore the faltering economy and rebuild communities devastated by natural disasters and economic ones.

Foremost among these principles is that every American must be ensured the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Not only does everyone need a place to live, we need a place to prosper. We need the opportunity to not only be told about possibilities in schools, but to actually see these possibilities at work in our neighborhoods. We think of these elements as only affecting the poor, but how many people do you know whose adult children have returned to live at home because there is not affordable rental homes that enable the quality of life they came to expect from living with their parents?

All of which means that instead of planning more segregated housing patterns, we need the development of more mixed-income housing. Instead of just building affordable housing, which too often translates into boxes with very little consideration given to the lifestyle encouraged by the box. We need to insure that there is an aesthetic component to the architecture, and landscaping, AND building maintenance and sanitation services that are effective!

By way of example, back in the day I worked in a school where busing was utilized to address racial integration. One of the highlight activities of the school was a Bicycle Safety Day. Students came to school with their bikes, riding or being ferried in the family SUV. Since the school bus was not capable of carrying bikes and students who rode the bus would have to ride across several major streets, making that option dangerous, these students mostly did not participate in the activities of the day.

To address this oversight of planning, several of us - teachers and parents - decided to ride along with students in order to make a safe caravan in which they could bring their bikes to school. It was a hoot! But, what I remember most are the comments of parents as we waited for the caravan to form: “Why don’t these streets have handicap access at the crossings?” “Why haven’t these streets been cleaned?” “Wasn’t garbage pickup today? Why are these bins still full?” These were parents who lived less than a mile away, but had never before recognized that they lived in a different universe.

This is where collaborative government programs could have real inroads. Middle and lower income families often don’t recognize that they have a right to more than just a home. They have a right to a clean and pleasing environment in which to live and raise their families. They have a right to hold government accountable for providing the services that promote and sustain the quality of their neighborhood.

Here’s another example: as a young adult, I moved from Chicago’s Southside to an apartment on the Northside, just a block west of the lake. People would spend the summer evenings enjoying the beach and by evening’s end, the beach looked about as I had come to recognize it from my old neighborhood - garbage strewn everywhere! But, here comes the difference; in the early morning, sanitation crews cleaned the beach. Not once a fortnight, or whatever pattern existed on the Southside, but every day. Each evening when people returned to the beach, it was clean, not because no one left garbage, but because public works kept it that way. The instances where public services were, and are, not equally available to all neighborhoods of a city are numerous.

Every neighborhood may not be composed of Usonian houses, but every neighborhood can be inhabited by people who embrace their individual autonomy within the collective. This is learned behavior. As a society, we can teach this behavior just as easily as we now teach that those without wealth have no standing, and, by so doing, we would eliminate our institutionalized biases, like racial profiling and the “invisible” community redistributions of resources to benefit some at the expense of others.

Sometimes the most complicated of things are actually quite simple, where there’s a will - there is a way. You just do it! Our problem is that we have a system that reinforces the idea that only some of “we, the people” can have a quality life; that only homeowners or affluent renters are entitled to have input, and that wealth is the only measure of autonomy. We have integrated the notion that there exists “throwaway people,” as if they were not citizens, with protections under the law. And our housing patterns reflect this attitude. We’ll know when we have gained the will to make our country otherwise, when we establish effective mechanisms to make sure that everyone has affordable access: to quality housing, quality healthcare, and quality legal services!

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