Category Archives: Space

A is for Adaptive Reuse

There is nothing more creative than adaptive reuse. In a world of earth movers and concrete slabs, redeveloping old buildings has become more rare than starting from scratch. Adaptive reuse forces creative builders to work in an existing space and create something that honors the history of the space while also recreates a new use for old bricks.

My favorite current adaptive reuse project in Richmond is the Live/Work Lofts at Beckstoffer’s Mill. I like this project because it’s compact (one city block), extremely well-done (down to the brick sidewalks), and it’s in the middle of a neighborhood. The old wood mill has been reimagined and resurrected for twenty-first century use. Yay for creativity and hard work in Church Hill.

This is a part of my, Cataloguing Richmond series on my RVA page.

He came and dwelt among us

Yesterday, Christmas Eve, was the deadliest day in Richmond since New Year’s Day. Last night, I got the following text from my housemate:

“Don’t know if y’all saw the news or not but two people were killed and a 2 year old girl was abducted a few blocks [from] our house tonight. Be praying for our community tonight and throughout tomorrow as we reflect on what the birth of Christ and the hope of his return means.”

Later, I heard that there were three murders in the same day — a reminder that we humans are not the kind and simple species I like to imagine. I was so thankful that the sad news came with a charge to take Christmas more seriously.

If there were ever a Hallowed Hall, it was the stable in which Jesus was born. Amidst the chaos of an ancient Hebrew city — multiplied by the Roman census — God created room for His holy and audacious command: “peace on earth.”

This day is a tradition that exists to remind us that, with reckless abandon, the God of the universe “came and dwelt among us.” He spoke human language, followed human traditions and respected the full range of human experience: Contentment, excitement, trust, affection, doubt, betrayal, and loss.

Into such a world, this incarnation brought a peace and hope that allows us to give of ourselves and be satisfied.

When we follow a higher calling, the most simple human places become holy. I pray that this year we will hear the Christmas story and appreciate how absurd it sounds: A baby that is God, a new star in the sky, a mother that is a virgin, a stable that is a maternity ward, and a peace that surpasses human understanding.

That ancient city became an unlikely intersection, a place worth remembering, and the origin of a hope found in the person of Jesus Christ.

Merry Christmas.

From Drinking Songs to Pet Theories

I recently felt convicted on behalf of the individualistic, intellectual, global community. Didn’t we used to sing drinking songs together? It seems like these days we spend our time talking and debating rather than getting lost in something greater … something that unites.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between beer and coffee. In 2010, Stephen Johnson gave a TED talk titled, “Where good ideas come from.” I highly recommend it. In his presentation, he argues that the advent of the English coffeehouse played a significant role in the development of ideas during the English enlightenment. With the coffee house, Johnson states, the English people moved from a perpetually drunk society to a stimulated community of thought and collaboration. The ideas that transformed society emerged, at least in part, from within the incubator of the coffeehouse. So I originally saw this as a good thing. Don’t we need good ideas to progress? Well, yes, but I think we’ve lost something in the process of becoming enlightened and thoughtful. In short, we’ve lost drinking songs. We’ve lost this social tradition that connected us to each other and our sense of belonging and place.

I see the effects of this coffeehouse culture on my own upbringing in Tyler, TX. My friends and I would often meet for coffee at the “local” Starbucks and talk about life. These were great times we spent laughing and solving the world’s problems. But they didn’t unite us or connect us to our city in a meaningful. We never spontaneously burst into song with steins of beer sloshing around as we sang, “Tyler, oh Tyler! Da-dum de-dum de-dum …” Or anything of the sort.

In addition, the people that did drink together in high school did not usually do so with members of the older generations because they were partaking in something that many consider immoral. Thus, if there were a drinking song for Tyler, they wouldn’t be singing it. Instead, they would still be stuck in the teenage ghetto while their parents either condoned or condemned from afar. It really is a tragedy. When it came time for me to look for colleges, I felt no remorse leaving that city in the dust. I had clearly not connected to it’s people or culture in such a way that made me feel like I belonged. I had not yet come of age.

Here’s the deal: It’s not about beer and it’s not exactly about drinking songs. It’s about the cultural traditions that unite people.

The thing about these traditions is that they have to be taught. This teaching process requires close, intergenerational relationships. Drinking songs clearly had an incredible ability to galvanize that “togetherness” of community because they eventually became Baptist hymns and even the national anthem of the USA. The difficult question for me is whether this generations is producing material that could be redeemed in the same way. Does our philosophizing  bring us together? As I sit here at my computer developing this theory I wonder if instead I could be singing a drinking song (or any song) with a group of people. Granted, it’s 10 a.m. on a Thursday, but my point is this: I don’t want to care more about my pet theories than our collective humanity.

I think it’s time to start singing.

A Vantage

This week I have been teaching my high school students about imagination, appreciation, curiosity and innovation. The joys of alternative education 🙂 During this time, I’ve made some (albeit naive) teacher observations and formulated some theories to help myself improve and better understand what I’m doing. The most valuable lesson so far is this: The classroom is a vantage. From this vantage, we see the world for its order and structure. As Mufasa took Simba to the mountaintop, so do we teachers take our students to the classroom to make sense of the world in which they live.

From the vantage of Pride Rock, Mufasa shared with Simba the details of his kingdom: Places to go and places to avoid. At the same time, he is also sharing the weight of the responsibility of the kingdom (which I see as knowledge, adulthood, and the unknown future).  In this moment, he is imparting an understanding of life from the mountaintop because that is where the chaos of life begins to make sense. That is the place of perspective. Without the context of perspective we will hardly understand the significance of the information we retain.

One important point is that a mountaintop is positioned far away from life on the ground below. That’s not a bad thing! I think the “ivory tower” critique of education sometimes directs us to teach a more “realistic” education. But this is a mistake. Instead of making our education realistic, we believe that education must be detached from reality in order to prepare students for the abstract and unpredictable future. Is the future reality? No. We can only speculate how our students will use the information we teach them and we must give them the ability to make connections on their own. The ability to imagine the future and prepare for its challenges.

This capacity for imagination is becoming a subject of discussion as a skill that can (and should) be taught. In a PBS Newshour production, “Conversation: Imagination in Education,” Jeffrey Brown interviewed the director of the Lincoln Center Institute for the Arts in Education, Scott Noppe-Brandon. Brown asked, “What would [imagination in education] look like? What would be an example of putting imagination into the skill set and into the curriculum?” To this question, Mr. Noppe-Brandon responded,

“It’s taking issues like, ‘How do you get kids to notice deeply? How do you get them to attend to details and information in front of them? How do you get them to notice patterns and make connections and be reflective and tolerate ambiguity? Elements like that that combined over time start to build that cognitive capacity for imaginative thinking.” Imagine how differently we would teach if we believed this … the excitement in our voices as we say, “Look out over this world of information and conquer it with your mind.”

In my attempt to teach this concept to my students, I landed on the following formula:

Imagination + Creativity + Knowledge + Appreciation + Hard Work = Innovation.

Hopefully, my students will begin to value the ideas in their minds, appreciate the ideas of others and make connections between the two and reality. Reality is  not always the sort of place where people develop the capacity for creativity and imagination. That’s why we have the classroom. The classroom is a vantage. Every other hour of the day is enough reality for now.

On Jobs and Place

Right now it seems like everyone is talking about jobs and the economy. I saw Obama in Richmond yesterday talking about jobs, Republicans are hoping that the lack of jobs will help get Obama ousted, and many Americans are looking for jobs just about anywhere. All the while, it seems that we’re missing a relatively important point: Where are these jobs going to be created? I’d like to drastically shift this dialogue to the specific places and communities where these theoretical jobs will appear. First, we need to care about where we live.

For the record, the government may temporarily rehab existing jobs (e.g. highway repair), but this is neither innovative nor sustainable. In my opinion, the American government effectively sustains much of our society, but is not a trustworthy engine of growth. The American government has a longevity and reliability that makes for a comfortable place to live and do business.

Within this context, it is hard-working, intelligent and creative people that can add new and innovative jobs to our economy.

Unfortunately, most people in America aren’t able to make the proper connections that lead to new businesses. This is because the creation of a job requires a new idea, a connected network, sufficient capital and a knowledge of and commitment to a particular community. This community serves as the proving ground for these soon-to-be business owners and provides them with a knowledge base of needs and trends.

In a recent video posted by the National Endowment for the Arts, Christine Harris described the “creative economy” and a network of “creative industries” in the greater Milwaukee region. She defines these creative industries as “organizations, individuals, and companies whose products and services originate in artistic, cultural, crative, and/or aesthetic content.” These industries span a the gamut of traditional sectors and together comprise the creative economy.

The organization developing this network, Creative Alliance Milwaukee, works to bring together men and women in the creative economy who are working to move the region and create jobs.  One noteworthy example that Harris cites the time the CEO of a flooring company visited hosted by the creative alliance. businesses. She recalls the story in this way,

“Within a month of that meeting, he had hired one of our visual artists to design a new flooring pattern. That artist now has a royalty fee. And he has since then hired two other artists. They have royalty fees and he has products that no one else in the world has.”
 
We cannot talk about job creation without discussing the relationships involved in commerce and innovation. This is ultimately the foundation of local economy.

Rather than rely on our government for jobs, I want us to rely on our government for the environment in which jobs are created. We have amazing political stability in America: That can sustain job creation. We have a wide-stretched infrastructure in America: (as much as I hate highways) That can sustain job creation. Maintaining these constants will be necessary to improving our economy, but will not create long-term positions in the workforce.

That’s our job.

Duck on Decorated Shed?

I don’t think Robert Venturi had any idea someone would ever take his duck and decorated shed concepts to this level. The (now patented) concept of building a huge, proportional hat onto a small square building was inspired by my hometown of Tyler, TX with the “Kicker’s” coffee franchise. The hat might even qualify as a duck? Be amazed:

Elks, Masons, and Odd Fellows: antiquated past or valuable tradition?

“I just worry,” my dad told me one day this summer, “that there won’t be enough Shriners in the future to maintain hospitals like Scottish Rite (Hospital, Dallas).” “Well,” I responded, “why don’t you become a Shriner?”

Growing up, I never would have thought about fraternal societies. To be honest, Barney Flintstone’s membership in the Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes was the closest I ever came to even knowing they existed. Then I went to college, joined a fraternity, and never looked back … until now. I graduated in May and in the last few months, fraternal societies for grown men have started to make a lot more sense. I think it was when people started doing this weird thing — calling me a man instead of a guy — that I started to wonder what I was getting myself into. Isn’t being a man all about being lonely and depressed? Work all day then come home and sit in your house? Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone makes a strong case that we’re living more of our lives without each other. As a result, it doesn’t feel like there’s any benefit to this whole “guy-to-man” switch … just more responsibility. There’s nothing cool waiting for me on the other side. But in the context of our nation’s history, that wasn’t always the case. There was an era of the American city when the fabric of society was dense with organizations and groups that carried and supported you through all the stages of life.

Douglass Rae summarized this era of ‘urbanism’ in this way:

“All or virtually all of the people who were assembled by these organizations — whether for religious or a fraternal lodge meeting or a sporting contest — were members of locally grounded communities. And the acts of assembly and association almost certainly deepened and enriched participants sense of loyalty to and identity with place.” Rae, City: Urbanism and its end (2003).

Rae’s research focussed on the city of New Haven, Connecticut and the 100-year deterioration of urbanism. In his research, he documents how each city block in New Haven was once a thriving microcosm of society. Middle-class men and women were usually a part of several societies in the city for different purposes including fraternities, sports teams, and social clubs. It’s wasn’t easy life in 1900, but it was lived together.

Today, things have changed. The America of 1900 no longer exists. But what I love about cities is that the buildings in our cities (the ones that survived) are the constructed monuments to our past. Tyler, TX is no exception. While they don’t hold the same place of prominence in the region, there are still buildings in Tyler that harken to an older era. The Masonic Lodge (pictured above), built in 1932 is the most striking downtown example that is still in use. I’ve driven by this building numerous times, but never thought it was special. Today, I almost felt like someone was going to come out and kidnap me for taking a photo of their building. The awesome neon sign (left) on the street is also worth noting … I don’t recognize some of the symbols, but I’m sure they all mean something to the men involved. The pentagram at the top looks slightly demonic, but I’d still think it was cool if my dad went to this building for a meeting once a week.

Other buildings in Tyler are no longer being used for their original purposes, but still bear the markings of early twentieth-century urbanism. The old Elk Lodge is one such building. I believe there is still a group of Elks in Tyler, but now they meet on the edge of the city in a newer lodge. It’s kind of a shame they moved, but I’m partially glad they did because the building is amazing and I got to walk through it today (without being properly initiated). It’s currently being renovated by Ron Mabry of Tyler for events in the city. I believe All Saints Episcopal is having a dance later on in the year. I hope that at least one high school student walking by notices the plaque on the building that states the founding purpose of the building: “Tyler Lodge No. 215, B. P. O. Elks, M. E. Danbom, Exalted Ruler.” The people on this plaque cared enough about each other to build a building where they could meet, talk about life, celebrate and mourn.

Only the oldest parts of our nation harbor these artifacts of the American past. It is always good to remember where we came from because it gives us a context for where we are. Plenty of people today are talking about why guys aren’t growing up, etc, but I don’t think they ever ask the question, “What’s waiting on the other side?” Yes, traditions are cumbersome and (quite necessarily) antiquated, but even in this postmodern society there is utility in having a structure to stand up under. There is a beauty in being told how to act. So don’t mock the Oddfellows, Lions, Masons, or Shriners. The men involved in these organizations are engaging in a tradition of American civil society that was once a grand element of this American life. Today, it is mostly just plaques on buildings … and a memory of how life could be.

Race in Tyler: A Pie Graph of Color

This is a response to a map of race in Tyler recently produced by Christopher Groskopf (@onyxfish) using the brand spankin’ new 2010 census data. He posted his analysis on the Web site hacktyler.com  titled “2010 Census: Racial diversity in Smith County.” Check it out:

In some ways, what I always knew makes much more sense after looking at this map. I now see that the original El Lugar is in the middle of the most Hispanic section of Tyler. Texas College and Martin Luther King Blvd are in the heart of Black Tyler. South Broadway, the site of most new development and big business in the city, is the backbone of White Tyler.

I think Groskopf’s work compliments thoughts that I and others have had on Tyler and gives me more of a context for the city over all.  Somehow with the language of the internet (which is beyond me)  he has illuminated my city in a way I have never before seen. Granted, some racial realities are not surprising, but the overall experience as a resident looking through this map is remarkable.

When I first looked a the map, my eyes immediately went downtown (pictured right). That black, vacuous space in the middle of my city. It may seem strange to be drawn to an empty space, but it’s because I have a different vision for downtown. In an earlier post, “C-T-D: Thoughts on Downtown,'” I tried to understand the idea of “downtown.” What is it supposed to be in relation to the city? If we understand the idea, then we have a standard of comparison for the reality. Here’s my standard: The first element of downtown is density, the second is urbanity, and the third is a creative economy. Looking at the black space of our downtown reminds me that it is still primarily a place to work and park your car. What would it look like if it was a place to live? Downtown could be the place where all three major pieces of the racial pie meet each other. It could be the center of city life and it could be a place where everyone feels welcome. I know there are dreams for the old King Chevrolet location and other vacant lots downtown … I hope we share these dreams with the rest of the city.

From downtown, my eyes zoom outward. I follow the three pieces of this pie from their smallest points to their largest and I’m amazed at the simplicity of the settlement patterns in our city. Groskopf mentioned the racial segregation in Chicago because in my experience that city is a patchwork of race. Tyler is more of a pie. The white population in Tyler is certainly the most homogenous, but there are some clear demarcations between the Black and Hispanic regions as well.

Here are specific observations:

Physical structures divide urban communities. The clearest example of this for me was the section of Paluxy just south of the Loop (pictured right). This photo is special to me because the black community to the right is in the middle of the huge white piece of the pie. The community also looks clearly sectioned off by Paluxy to the west (left) and other, smaller roads to the N,E, and S. On Google maps, this section doesn’t look any different. I have to admit I haven’t driven around these streets on either side of the color line, but I have this urge to go there and learn more about why the communities have settled in this way.

Invisible lines divide rural communities. I was really unaware of the racial breakdown of rural Tyler before looking at this map. It’s partly because I haven’t spent as much time in rural Smith County and it’s partly because it’s just a bigger amount of space to understand. I think it’s so interesting that north of Tyler the two pie pieces of Black and hispanic communities stops at this invisible line (pictured left) and then White communities continue all the way to the county line. BUT, to the east, there is no imaginary line and the rural Black population is sustained to the edge. I wonder what historical legacy or communal understanding has created these invisible lines? While roads and buildings sustain separation in the city, segregation in the rural areas of Smith County is a little more difficult to comprehend.

There is so much more to learn from this map. I have already spent over an hour looking at the dots on this black field and I’m still amazed at what they have to teach me. I will certainly be referencing this map until the next census and I look forward to thoughts and responses from my fellow Tylerites.

Check out my other Tyler projects at my Tyler, TX page.

New Term: Grand Obsolescence

The term is usually “planned obsolescence,” but the word “planned” doesn’t exactly apply to what our cities look like today. So Grand Obsolescence is the term I guess I’ll to describe the spaces in our cities that have beed deemed worthless and discarded. Just like your iPhone 3 when the new one came out.

A Walmart was built on a highway in Tyler and surrounded by acres of asphalt. Then, Walmart built a supercenter right down the road and left this building to anyone that wants to spend the money to retrofit a warehouse. Thanks Walmart! The parking lot is now (obviously) underperforming asphalt and the building is vacant. The reality is: multi-nationals don’t have any concern for the long-term well-being of a city … they just need to make money. It’s up to the city to look out for itself and to prevent stymie process. The problem is usually a weak planning function and a city council that can only see $$$ with each new development. The result is cities that Kunstler says simply “aren’t worth caring about.” Of course, there is still plenty to care about, but the problem is that you have to drive farther to get to them. And even then … it’s still not usually impressive.

Maybe, we drive so fast we don’t notice these vacant buildings or maybe we just have low expectations. Maybe because our cities grow outward we don’t feel the need to look inward. All I know is, it ain’t pretty and we can do better.

Buy this Brownfield: Tyler Ice House

The coolest building in Tyler has trees growing in it. If you’re like me, you’ve seen it before. If you’ve lived in or visited the Salvation Army, you might have stumbled upon it. Otherwise the area is probably one big blank spot on your mental map of Tyler.

Check it out on  Google maps. I first found this building years ago while exploring North Tyler. When I found it, I couldn’t believe I was in the same city. It was one of those”WHAT IS THIS” moments that I have on occasion. From the road, the building is impossible to understand. The first think you notice is that it’s huge, old and derelict. The outside of the building is this weird cross between a Tex-Mex Restaurant stucco façade and a 1900s industrial frame. The primary door (right) is relatively ornate for an old ice house and a reminder that there was a time when people cared about details.  From what I can tell, besides the materials there is also nothing really uniform about the design. Which is perfect. Buy this brownfield. It could be literally be the coolest “whatever you want” in Tyler.

Because the space has the potential for such a wide variety of uses, I decided to choose my five favorite options. Four are long-term options and the fifth one is my “Hail Mary” option that would at least create some temporary attraction and breathe new life into the space.

Option #1: Concert Venue. You could do this tomorrow! All you would have to do is secure the area, hang a light canopy from the walls, spray some Roundup, and get an electricity hookup. The actual venue would be housed in the cavernous great room (left). It is reminiscent of an industrial cathedral with rusting machinery, an I-beam frame, and a large floor space. Recently, I walked into the space and got that sense of wonder I get when I see something that was once great. When you first walk into the space (beware of the three dogs that chased us out … seriously), you feel a sense of grandeur that can only come from an old factory brownfield. Instead of supporting the ceiling, the old steel beams rise into the air to the sky itself. There is some leftover from the industrial era, but otherwise most of this great room has been cleared away making it a perfect place to set up chairs and blankets for a life concert under the stars.

Option #2: Artist Collective and Gallery. This idea incorporates the mission of “creative placemaking” which seeks to attract creative people to improve a building or neighborhood. This plan would incorporate two parts: A retrofit of the great hall into a gallery and a renovation into the rest of the building into studios and apartments. For the great hall, imagine The Tate Modern on a significantly smaller scale. It would be industrial, expansive and equally stunning. With a glass dome spanning the distance between the walls and a canopy of lights it would be the coolest art space in Tyler. The great hall was made to showcase art. The two-story southern half of the building (pictured below) is large enough to fit 20 or so studios for local artists who desire an inspirational setting for their projects. I’ll admit this section needs a lot of work, but someone with a vision and some money could invite the right people to make it an incredible success.

Option #3: Urban Farm and Fresh Produce Market. This project could be a particularly good fit because the entire lot includes both a large amount of land and a large building on the street. The land surrounding the building could be an excellent urban farm and garden. There’s enough room to grow crops as well as concept gardens for visitors. This vacant land  is currently being used for auto repair, but I don’t think there much physical infrastructure associated with the shop. The owner of the business (and the dogs) would probably be able to find another vacant lot in N. Tyler … I can think of a few. If the land were converted into a farm and garden, the building itself would be converted into greenhouses, market space and apartments for the farming community. In contrast to the current farmer’s markets in Tyler, this would be a permanent space completely devoted to the growing, sharing, and selling of good food. In addition, the location of this farm would be strategic in connecting the surrounding neighborhoods with fresh vegetables and weekly workshops on nutrition, agriculture and entrepreneurship.

Option #4: Offices for an Urban Development Firm. Usually, it takes a very creative and ambitious firm with a lot of money and confidence to retrofit something like this building. As such, it would be the perfect flagship for a pioneering architectural firm in Tyler. Is there one? I’m not sure, but if there is one I would consider applying for their first entry-level job in this new space. As a flagship, it would highlight the firms ability to critically analyze the historical significance and current condition of a space and produce successful adaptive reuse solutions. There are already people doing this sort or work in Tyler, but I think they need to join forces, gather investors and convert this building. With representatives from real estate, landscape architecture, architecture, engineering and planning, this new firm could be a regional presence.

Hail Mary Option: Host a Regional Mural Conference! My last-ditch effort to start using this space is simply this: Invite artists from all over Tyler and East Texas to come for a weekend of live music, street food and live mural paintings on the property. What is now old and grey could find new life with creative people and for a moment everyone would catch a glimpse of the buildings full potential.

Check out my other Tyler projects at my Tyler, TX page!

p.s. I’ve heard the building is overpriced, but if you’re up for a challenge call Five-Star Reality at 903-561-2200. I’m sure they’d be happy to show you around.