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Friendship-iness

If love means “never having to say you’re sorry,” then friendships are the complete opposite: they obligate admission of error and the making of amends. I know of someone on Facebook who has 8,000-plus “friends” but you and I both know it’s impossible to maintain that number of genuine relationships. Indeed it is possible to be friendly with someone without being their friend.

Let’s face it: social media have recast friendship as a wholesale commodity, and made their number a barometer of social standing. “My dad can beat your dad!” But at what? Tiddlywinks or the calculus? I suppose it depends on values—as in what you value.


What is the range of social relationships in a town like Agincourt (pop. 18,623 in the last census)? Certainly their web is a complex and ever-changing weave. Even within families like the extended Tennant clan, the dynamics can be volatile. I’ve touched on some of those linkages, couplings, whatever you want to call them, but with little recognition of the nuance I know must exist. Howard is in a better position than I, simply because he is on the scene—in the trenches?—while you and I can but watch from afar. The subject interests me particularly today, as I’m in the throes of preparing the third and likely final Agincourt exhibit.

The Agincourt Project has surely depended upon the kindness of strangers. But it has also been a collaborative effort among the barely acquainted. Friendships have grown from close working relationships and they have also, no doubt, been stretched and strained. As I work diligently toward the October 25th opening, I shall try to keep that in mind.

Cecil (on varying the monotony)

Our friend and former department chair Cecil Elliott had a way of cutting through the academic argle-bargle (i.e., obfuscatory crap), laying bare the essence of any issue at hand. That’s one of the qualities some of us most admired in him and, simultaneously, dreaded that any one of us might be its target; if so, it wouldn’t have been without cause. I can’t recall the first time I heard Cecil make this observation — varying the monotony — but I suspect it may have been an occasion not unlike my experience yesterday during the round of second-year reviews in ARCH272.

The students had been asked to design mid-sized mixed-use buildings on one of four Moorhead-Fargo inner-city sites; to create “neighborhoods” that outsiders might also enjoy visiting. These were team projects in which each student was assigned a site probably no larger than a half city block; of including (at least) housing and some commercial activity; and of coördinating their proposals within the team. In my comments, I observed (though they may already have made those observations among themselves) there are several comparable projects in the community which could have informed their own designs:

  • Downtown Moorhead at Main Avenue and Fourth Street, an Urban Renewal area with a similar scale and program;
  • A parking lot (I was about to say “vacant” but that’s not quite accurate; vacant and empty aren’t interchangeable) east of Renaissance Hall along N.P. Avenue in Fargo;
  • The Roberts Street Commons project nearing completion at Roberts Street and Second Avenue, Fargo, again with a similar mix of apartments and retail;
  • 220 West, an apartment building at North Tenth Street and Third Avenue (which includes no commercial space); and
  • 300 Lime, occupying a half block at Eleventh Street North and Fourth Avenue (which also includes no commercial space).

These five projects span a fifteen-year period and are similar in bulk and footprint, even if they differ in program elements. And they offer important lessons to those second-year students I met Friday morning.

Nineteenth-century American cities played by a different set of rules than they have, say, since 1950, when government-sponsored Urban Renewal changed the character of our center cities and practically obliterated any rules which had shaped them prior to the Second World War. And while I use the word “rules”, there was no handbook furtively passed among owners, architects, and builders who created the colorful block fronts represented by this panoramic view of Broadway in downtown Fargo, taken about 1910. The “rules” were a kind of default, a broadly held pattern accepted by all concerned. If only we did have such a handbook.

A typical urban block front circa 1900, whether in Keokuk or Kalispell, was divided into 25-foot-wide building sites, usually set within the Jeffersonian grid of our westward Manifest Destiny. If they deviate, it is usually a reaction to topography, water courses, railway rights-of-way, or some other natural or human factor. Within this commercial cartesian grid, speculators responded to market forces (or attempted to capitalize and redirect those forces toward their own ends) with generally two- and three-story commercial fronts of brick and cast iron, accented with moderate amounts of wood and stone — depending on the community’s prior experience with fire.

Architects or builders — in the 19th century there was little practical difference between them — satisfied the client’s desire for solutions which balanced stylistic expression with reasonable economy. Brick — uniform or multi-colored; smooth and textured;  corbelled and coursed; laid in running bond, soldier courses, headers and stretchers, basket-weave and herringbone — accented with stone and/or terra cotta, and spanned with cast or wrought iron were the predominant material palette. Personal flourishes included at the very least personal or business names, dates, initials, personal, fraternal, or corporate symbols, and other ornamental touches. Floor heights varied within reasonable limits; the ceiling heights for a shallow 25-foot-wide store might differ from a deep 50-foot width, and were often guided by the length of a flight of stairs patrons would tolerate. The elements might vary, but the template remained  fairly consistent, so it’s no wonder our Midwestern cities appear to have been variations upon a theme.

Now, safely beyond the bulldozer mentality of Urban Renewal, and well within the historic preservation mindset encouraged by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, Historic District ordinances often provide guidelines for the insertion of new buildings in historic fabric, hoping to achieve some degree of compatibility. There is where we are likely to find those rules — long after the fact and perhaps only a ouija-board-induced approximation of those 19th century “rules” we’d like to believe had been in effect at the time our great-grandparents walked those streets. Such guidelines, whether government- or self-imposed, might have shaped as readily a Main Street store front or the regeneration of a place as iconic as Potsdammer Platz in Berlin, and always with mixed results.

In Cecil Elliott’s terms, they had learned how to vary the monotony.

300 Lime in the foreground and 220 West in the center distance offer contrasting case studies in “varying the monotony”.

It’s highly likely I’ll have something else to offer on this topic, so be forewarned.

Cecil (on travel and tourism)

As we prepared for the Department of Architecture’s first foreign study experience — the landscape program hadn’t been established yet — we met several times to discuss the audacity of what we were about to do. I recall at one of the early sessions the sort of counsel that made Elliott the go-to-guy when virtually any problem reared its head. Remembering that there was no downtown campus then and that students were disinclined to set foot beyond Twelfth Avenue North, he advised:

If you can’t walk from campus to downtown Fargo and see something new or see something old in a new way, then you’re not ready to go to Europe.

In other words, being a tourist doesn’t consist of what you’re looking at; it constitutes the simple act of looking. So many years have passed, I can’t recall how we reacted to such a simplistic notion, but in hindsight I wish he’d challenged us to actually do it.

When Elliott arrived mid-year 1975, I knew little more than he had come from Detroit and that he’d taught architectural history. I had been doing that since the fall of 1971 and was still unsettled in the job fate had dealt me. The jig is up, I thought; he’ll see through me in short order.

I recall one afternoon in the coffee room at the end of the hall in our shoebox on campus, the home we quickly outgrew. Cecil and I were talking about travel. “My ideal retirement,” he admitted, “would be a combination bar, bookstore, and travel agency,” at which point I knew there was a future for me at NDSU. And that future became borderline rosy when we spoke of our favorite travel destinations and the Napoleonic truth that all great armies travel on their stomachs.

London. We agreed on London — at least the London of the 1960s, a very different city than it’s become in the last half century — as the place we most enjoyed all round: architecture (Hawksmoor), bookstores (Foyle’s), museums (the V&A), parks (Hyde and Kensington), music (The Albert Hall for live performance; Tower Records, otherwise). And then there was food. Someone just reminded me of Blackfriars, for pub lunch and a pint. [Thanks, Mr Hulne.] But I have in mind another place on the other side of the city.

The first of my several trips to London had occurred in 1971, the summer before my arrival in Fargo. And quite by accident rather than design, I had stumbled upon a tiny restaurant while on my way to the V&A: exit the District & Circle line at South Kensington, proceed to the principle exit, bearing right and right again, onto Thurloe Street. Proceed past the shop fronts to the last of them on the right, #20, and enter Daquise, a French-named Polish-themed restaurant that had been a watering hole for expatriate Poles since the end of WWII. I thought immediately to tell Cecil about it, hoping I might have a scoop. “You know, (dramatic pause) my favorite restaurant in London is near the V&A just outside the tube stop,” I offered. And his immediate reply? “Oh, you mean Daquise.”

Family-owned and operated, the Daquise ambiance was simple, like the food, and the staff spoke their English with more than a hint of Central Europe. I happened on the place just after the lunch crowd and settled in for the one meal dictated by my very limited budget. Probably the most authentically Polish item on the menu was (and still is!) szrazy, a piece of beef pounded thin, rolled around a combination of  bacon, pickle and prunes, and then poached in heavy cream; the French would call it a roulade. Traditionally served with buckwheat and beets, this is Polish comfort food — the kind I’d been deprived by a Polish grandmother who hated to cook. And now to discover that what had grown to legendary proportions in my recollection was the favored restaurant of my new department chair was the foundation of a relationship I could never have imagined.

Elliott was the kind of person who could derive as much pleasure from reading a recipe as eating the completed dish. Our conversations often turned to food, especially the foodways that brought us to interesting and exotic places like Budapest and Prague and Stockholm — or, for that matter, Kansas City or Milwaukee or Chicago. Food (and drink) and the travel it punctuates were the mainstays of our relationship for more than twenty years. And for each of us I think, it became a refuge from the routine of teaching and the rigor of administration at a place where the food was, frankly, pretty unremarkable.

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Roy Times Two

When Roy lost his leg in 1926 at the age of nine, artificial limbs were clumsy and expensive. So he grew to manhood on a series of crutches until his growth had begun to slow. But graduation from high school in 1935 put him squarely in the midst of the Great Depression. What factory was likely to hire an amputee for the assembly line? So he and his dad, Roy L. built a gasoline station and garage for auto repair. When he married Marge, the station became a family affair until she disappeared in 1953. I hung out there as a child and eventually worked on weekday evenings and weekends — no doubt in violation of child labor laws. Eventually, I took on the half-day Sunday operations.

[In case this teaching gig doesn’t work out, I picked up some valuable job skills, like changing split-ring truck tires or giving a ’59 DeSoto a grease job and oil change.]

Ramsey’s Service Station enjoyed an eclectic clientele. Somewhere between a quarter and a third of our customers—in the days long before self service—were Blacks who had gone to school with my dad and knew him before and after the amputation. Many “protected” him while he was still on crutches; artificial limbs were both crude and expensive in the latter years of the Depression. So it was that I went to school with the children of many of Roy’s grade- and high-school friends.

These were families who had moved northward along the Illinois Central mainline from Louisiana, Tennessee and Kentucky in search of better wages and less overt racism—or at least a different species of it. We lived in Bedford Park but Argo (where the high school and dad’s grade school were located) was divided on racial lines, with Blacks living south of 63rd Street and west of Archer Avenue. I wonder if things have changed very much. Coming of age in the 1950s, I cannot recall my father ever uttering a racial epithet or slur. I’ve tried to build some of that part of American history into Agincourt: you may find interesting the story of Truman Hand, a.k.a., “Handy”, an exploration of that point of view and Agincourt’s own racial tolerance.

But back to Roy.

Preparing for the Minimalist seminar next spring semester, I’ve discovered the short stories of Lydia Davis; some of them are one sentence long. Here’s a short story about dad in the spirit of Professor Davis (whose work I recommend).

Do you know the way to Resurrection? 

Depending on the season or time of day, a long bench across the front of the gas station hosted a changing cast of characters, the usual suspects. In the heat of summer, Roy was there, shirtless and tanned like a Mexican, drinking Schlitz and whittling two-by-twos into wooden chains. He wasn’t disinclined to move but some customers would pump their own and save him the trip. After school and while he ate supper, I worked the pumps from about the age of twelve.

Now and then someone would pull up to the pumps, clearly positioned for a full-up, but only be interested in directions. The station at 6455 South Archer Road was just beyond the comforting grid of the city, on a road that followed an trail blazed by the Illini and other native tribes moving between the Mississippi and Great Lakes watersheds: Summit, the next village north of us, wasn’t named by accident. Archer was State Highway #1A, a winding road between Chicago and Joliet with a string of leafy villages along the way that are now part of suburban sprawl.  Strung along between them were four large cemeteries — Bethania, Resurrection, Archer Woods, and Fairmount — some of them near the Forest Preserves that were a legacy from the Progressive Era. Weekends, especially Saturday, Sunday, Easter, Memorial and Veterans holidays, traffic was heavy to those destinations and a good many of them got disoriented beyond the grid. We called them “Losts.”

If a “Lost” pulled up to the pumps and only wanted directions, Roy took a dim view of their presumption and, more than once, sent them on a quest more likely to locate the wild goose than the grave of Aunt Harriet. But the flip side was also true: if you pulled up to the curb, within a few feet of that bench, Dad would go well beyond the giving of simple accurate direction, drawing a map on a handy piece of butcher paper with annotations that anyone could follow. I remember one of those situations from the late 1950s.

It was late on a Saturday, a slow time on a hot summer day. A southbound car pulled in and idled a few feet from Roy, who had settled in for an afternoon of whittling. Fairmount was the driver’s goal but the I-394 bypass had been under construction for months and getting through that maze of barricades in a cloud of gravel dust was tricky, so Roy volunteered to provide a map. Pen and paper were in the station, so he put down the carving project and casually threw the pocket knife into his leg — which, of course, our Lost had no idea was made of wood. Feeling no pain, Roy stood to go inside but I watched as the expression of the guy behind the wheel turn from shock to “What the fuck have I got myself into?” He put the pedal to the metal and laid a ten foot trail of burnt rubber in a burst of exhaust. Dad and I just stood there, wondering what was wrong — a pen knife still firmly imbedded where his right thigh ought to have been.

Typical Roy.

Let sleeping doubt lie

A year or so before he died, I gave Dad a family genealogy as a Christmas present. I’d worked in those pre-ancestry.com days with a professional in DC and put together quite a reasonable effort for not much investment. For the first time EVER, he actually talked about himself, like the picture of him, Roy L. and Clara (the lady in cloche hat) and his grandmother. Then he dropped the bombshell: Roy wasn’t at all sure that Clara was actually his mother!

It seems that my grandfather had been married twice and that the first Mrs Ramsey had died in childbirth. What had apparently concerned him for most if not all his life was that he had been that child and that Clara was actually his stepmother. Shit! You can imagine I manifest the precise opposite of his disconnect. That doubt was all I needed.

An afternoon at the office of Vital Statistics in downtown Chicago gave me all the information I needed. Roy L. had married Nellie in 1908 and their son Evard was born in early 1912, dying just seven weeks later, apparently along with Nellie. Roy married Clara in 1913 and Roy (confirmed by birth certificate) was born in June 1917. Clara, the woman who raised me when Marge left (with a suitcase of lingerie and loose cash, never to be seen again), stepped in and took me on as her “parenting” swan song. I slept well that night and so did Roy, though he never mentioned it again.

Perhaps that is the greatest difference between us: Roy could live with that nagging suspicion — he’d just rather not know — for most of his adult life, while I needed an answer a.s.a.p., regardless of the truth.

Cecil (on institutional memory)

institutional 1

 

There is a sociological phenomenon called Institutional Memory Theory, which Wikipedia introduces this way:

Institutional memory is a collective set of facts, concepts, experiences and know-how held by a group of people. As it transcends the individual, it requires the ongoing transmission of these memories between members of this group. Elements of institutional memory may be found in corporations, professional groups, government bodies, religious groups, academic collaborations, and by extension in entire cultures.

I’ve worked at one of those places for forty-five years and I can tell you I.M. has not always been valued. The ability to identify policy, pinpoint its implementation, who created it, and how it has been applied can be “inconvenient” for administrators, who prefer to invoke precedent only when it serves their immediate purpose.

In the 1980s [oops!] when Cecil Elliott was our chair, “policy” was often whatever any two administrators remembered, and it just as often sounded like Tommy Flanagan (the SNL character played by John Lovitz; not the Scottish film director) making it up on the spot and giving away his stream-of-consciousness lie with the phrase: “Yeah….that’s the ticket.”

Cecil attended meetings — many of them with our dean at the time; an engineer who supported Intelligent Design! — and would then return to his office, review his notes, and write a memo to others who had been present, saying essentially this: “Thanks for contributing to our meeting this afternoon. These are my recollection of what we discussed, the decisions reached, and the action(s) to be taken. If they differ from your recollection, please reply as soon as possible so we can resolve the difference and move on.”

The department made headway during the “Elliott Years” because he played the administrative game better than they did.