The Unstuck Generation: Preserving our shot at a future

I could say that the nine months since I last posted to this blog have been the gestational period for a very new life. It’s about time to process this change in a way that might benefit others, as well as my own understanding. 

To begin with, I wrote what follows, a somewhat sentimental plea on behalf of my preservation peers, at the end of June. A few days later, I took a trip to Toronto to celebrate my birthday and interview for a summer position at the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario. I ate cake, I interviewed, I answered the phone, I cried, I canceled my bus back to New York. A week later, I was at work. Two months later, I was in a U-Haul, moving for real, and starting a new, long-term job at my dream firm here in the Great White North. I am now exactly where I want to be. But my experience should not negate this post. I got lucky; someone gave me my shot. There should be enough of that luck to go around. 

the Owens-Thomas House and me, instagrammed

“You are all a lost generation.”

Coined by a car mechanic, reported by Gertrude Stein, and published by Ernest Hemingway, this term labeled the youth who entered adulthood while the world entered the Great War. If they survived the fighting, they found themselves disillusioned, distraught, disconnected.

Today, my age group has inherited the honor. Our elders lay it upon us like a shroud, as if it is a fact, as if we have no choice: “You are.”

After the Second World War, Kurt Vonnegut described young postwar bewilderment with an ultimately different declaration: “Listen: Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time.” Billy follows the nonlinear path of Slaughterhouse-Five because, again, he has no choice. But Billy is not lost: although he experiences events–birth, death, war, alien abduction–out of chronological order, he stays within the boundaries of his life. He is merely unstuck.

As a recently tassel-wearing, diploma-bearing Master of Historic Preservation, I spend a lot of time thinking about time. I do not always get paid to do this, but I do it anyway.

When we graduated this spring, most of my class was charged with potential energy but without prospects. Some of us live in our parents’ homes, or on friends’ couches. Some of us tend bars, but still attend ceremonies to celebrate the victors in our field. Others stare at windows and wrought-iron railings, and write and write. We pine for the positions our forebears will never abdicate, and then for the chance to do something–anything–to help them, and not starve in the process.

They never told us we would find jobs. They never told us we would not. Now they ask how we are doing, and shrug knowingly. “It’s a difficult time,” they say, “but something will come.”

***

On my recent school-sponsored pilgrimage to the house museums of Savannah, a staircase made me weep. I had climbed to the top of the Owens-Thomas House, where the double-return stair divides in two like a wishbone, then rejoins as a heart pine bridge between front and back landings. Stunned, I stood at the end of that roped-off bridge–crossing the house, like a river of wood and glass–until I had to go back down.

William Jay designed it all in 1816 at twenty-four years old: my age. What have I accomplished in the same amount of time? A laptop full of stories, two degrees, unconquerable student loan debt. Commence weeping for a very different reason.

I entered the next house along with a couple in their fifties. “Sorry,” the tour guide informed them, “your daughter isn’t twelve, is she? Under twelve is free.” I quickly passed him cash and clarified that I was alone.

Behind his back, my would-be parents scoffed. “Twelve! How old are you actually?” I was flattered they thought twelve to be a hilarious underestimate–the average guess is sixteen–and answered them: “Twice that.”

“So is our daughter,” the wife said. “We didn’t bring her because there’s nothing but old buildings on our agenda.”

They were baffled to hear that old buildings are the basis of my fledgling career. Their peers whom I encountered throughout my trip expressed similar surprise. “Old head on a young body,” one woman told me twice, nodding.

For all their good will, they, too, underestimate my generation.

***

My class of preservationists was the largest in decades. And we aren’t the only ones finding comfort in old things. Appreciation of age has even blossomed in popular culture, which has always been symptomatic of underlying forces. At a time of ever-evolving technology, vintage is the equivalent of chic. Hipsterdom thrives on the antique–fashions, furnishings, books, music–or else the fake antique. Instagram, the mobile application that applies filters to photographs to produce vintage effects, recently made headlines when Facebook acquired it for $1 billion. I Instagrammed my photos of Savannah, rendering old buildings older, turning my days to sepia.

More than ever, we are seeking roots within a world in flux, trying to stick ourselves within a chronology that has evicted us. We are looking forward by looking back. This doesn’t have to be a contradiction.

We have seen everything around us collapse: the dot-com bubble, the housing market, the financial system, the Twin Towers, the hundreds of thousands of soldiers–from the United States, from countries far away–many of them our age. We have seen the fall before we had the chance to rise.

And we need a new moniker. We are the unstuck generation. “Lost” implies action: someone lost us, or we lost ourselves. Unsticking requires no attribution, no causation, no blame. It simply is; like Vonnegut’s refrain for Billy Pilgrim, “so it goes.”

When Billy finds himself kidnapped upon the planet of Tralfamadore, he discovers a new perspective on time. “Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim,” one of his captors tells him, “trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.” And yet, the Tralfamadorians view all of these moments–past, present, and future–as coexisting at once: “The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them.”

My generation has this power.

We are posed to see the past and future at once. We see the history of the battered building you might abandon, and, with our own abandon, we are free to see the wonder it might become.

Facing a reality that no one could predict, we must develop new ways to stake our place in it.  We need our predecessors to develop new ways to make that space. We must bridge the gap between past and future, and with your support, we will.

In the meantime, please, don’t give us sorrowful nicknames. Don’t give us pity. Just tell it like it is, and then give us a shot. Who else will inherit the world you are building and rebuilding? Who else will preserve it, when the time comes?

“I would not be a biographer for all the tea in China.”

In progress (with chianti)

Bound (and determined)

Tomorrow, I don my preservationist armor and go to the defense of my master’s thesis, that tome which has kept me constant company — and often, kept me from this blog — over the past seven months. Currently titled “Concealed Certainty and Undeniable Conjecture: Placing Marginalized Heritage,” it explores the challenges of interpreting sites related to under-documented community heritage. I suppose I could publish it here as a series of thirty 1000-word posts…but instead, I’ll settle for sharing my epigraph, which in fact isn’t settling at all. This paragraph opens Mary Oliver’s essay “Steepletop,” featured in her collection Blue Pastures. As a young aspiring poet in 1953, Mary wrote to Norma Millay to ask if she could visit Steepletop, the home of the late poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, Norma’s sister and Mary’s literary idol. Norma’s consent resulted in a friendship between the two women. Mary lived at Steepletop off and on for seven years—including the period of her schooling at Vassar, Vincent’s alma mater—and helped Norma to organize her sister’s papers. In this essay, Mary directly addresses her experience sorting through the stored papers and stories Norma shared with her: stories that I long to hear, because Steepletop happens to be one of the five case study sites in my thesis. I’ll admit, I grew a bit teary when I came across these lines; as many day-long coffee dates as my thesis and I had shared, I knew that I had reached the heart of it when I read Mary Oliver’s words.

“Biographers, of all writers, have need of prayers, and answered prayers. The graceful angles and sinuations of clean prose may finally be chiseled from the language, but what of the material itself? How can the biographer know when enough is known, and known with sufficient certainty? What about secrets, what about errors, what about the small black holes where there is nothing at all? What about the wranglings among minor characters, the withholding of facts for thoughtful and not-so-thoughtful reasons—or their mishandling—and this not even in the present but in the past, hidden in letters, in remembered conversations, in reams of papers? And what about the waywardness of life itself—the proclivity toward randomness—the sudden meaningless uplift of wind that tosses out one sheet of paper and keeps another? What about the moment that speaks worlds, as the saying goes, but in the middle of the night, and into deaf ears, and so is never heard, or heard of? I would not be a biographer for all the tea in China.”

Mary Oliver walking in the graveyard at Steepletop. Photo by Helen Atwan, http://www.beaconbroadside.com/broadside/2008/05/on-the-road-wit.html

Mary Oliver, “Steepletop,” Blue Pastures, (Orlando: Harcourt Books, 1991): 73-74.

Sandstorms and birthdays

Soon after the fall that would eventually end her life, my grandma thought of sandstorms in Australia. She spoke of this phenomenon and this place that she had never seen in her ninety years with an urgency and fixation that we could not explain. During my days visiting a Texas hospital, though I did not know they would be my last with her, I scribbled down her words — because she so often recorded mine in her journal when we spoke on the phone, and because she had always spoken in truths, and I knew this riddle must be no different: “Are you familiar with the sandstorms in Australia? They come to take the land, infiltrate everything. I’ve been fighting them all my life. Now the sand has filled my house. Go check on it.”

I would see her house once more, staying there to attend her funeral two months later, and all was still. There was no sand. But now that house, with its grey-blue carpet and its ceiling glitter — like stars, I had always thought, or was it silver-coated sand — belongs to someone else, and I think I know what she meant. As I described when I began this blog in her honor, Grandma had archived her own history, and so mine, too, keeping daily records of her travels and phone calls and meals, of the thank-you notes she received after gift-giving, of the origin of every thimble and china dish in her collections. In our last days together, she was telling me why she lived this way, as if by means of that timeless metaphor, the sands of time: it was time that came to take the land, time she had been fighting, time she feared had finally filled her house. Her crewelwork and photos on the walls, the smell of caramel and cherry and buttermilk pies, the files and boxes of clippings, photos, letters, lists, all of it has been deconstructed now, deaccessioned among her family. We couldn’t save her house from the sandstorms, but they haven’t won.

My grandma, Vera B. Stallcup Taylor, and her beloved sister, Beth Stallcup Young. Grandma loved this photograph that hung in a convex oval frame on her bedroom wall.

Today, on what would have been Grandma’s ninety-second birthday, my sister and I will fool the hourglass, share memories of her, play her favorite card games, fight sandstorms. And eat pie; there will always be pie.

 

All signs point to a Happy Kansas Day!

I have emerged from my thesis cave to celebrate the first big holiday of the new year. That’s right, folks…Happy Kansas Day!

At my Texan middle school, my math teacher and now dear friend Myron taught me more than how to calculate the slope of a line; he showed me how to take active pride in history. A historian in his spare time who has written about the Texas postal system and his experience flying 0-2B airplanes in the Vietnam War, he is also a dedicated ambassador of his home state of Kansas…which entered the Union on today’s date in 1861. Every year, on January 29, signs would appear around campus—on doors and windows, in the elevator and the pages of library books—bearing wishes for a Happy Kansas Day. Some featured facts about the state of Kansas (the state amphibian of Kansas is the barred tiger salamander), others hand-colored sunflowers (the state flower); all generated a great deal more conversation about Kansas than would normally be heard in a Texas middle school hallway.

He tells me that he started the tradition in hopes of encouraging people to consider and even “advertise” the origins of their own home states. It didn’t quite take off that way; few people seem to have such loyalty for their state, respect for its roots, and initiative for raising awareness. Of all places, this must be especially true in NYC, where notoriously few people are native New Yorkers but many are quick to adopt the New Yorker identity. But that is all the more reason to spread the Kansas Day joy. Last year, I received an envelope full of Myron’s handmade signs from years past, passed along to me with a list of suggested spots to post them (e.g. “side of a bus—don’t get run over”). I relished seeing them pinned up in halls around Columbia and clinging to the glass of NYC bus stops (not the buses themselves—I’m a coward) until the snow took them down. This year, I made photocopies, preserving the remaining originals so that wherever I am on each January 29, I can share with strangers a bit of cheerful curiosity on behalf of the Sunflower State.

Love to Myron, Kansas, and statehood in general, and a very happy Kansas Day to all.

Click to zoom...Columbia and Kansas Day

Dear Barnes & Noble, please don't ban me as a litterer if you see this.

 

It’s Christmastime in the city

I’m back! Admittedly, I haven’t been in the celebrating — or blogging — spirit in the past month; ’tis the season for final papers and presentations (now completed!), and a beloved family member passed away over the Thanksgiving holiday. But I’ve been coerced out of my hermitage by an annual magpie-like weakness against the lure of sparkly things: I’m a bit of a Christmas light enthusiast.

Unlike last year, I didn’t make a trip around town to admire the Rockefeller tree and shop windows, and the circuits in my lovely old apartment don’t take too fondly to overuse. Still, Christmas found its way to me, from the lit display of trees for sale down the road, turning the sidewalk air to pine, to the lights above the supermarket that I found mid-stringing. The light-highlight was another happy accident; on campus, I bumped into a crowd awaiting Columbia’s annual Christmas tree lighting, and shivered along with them until the shapes of trees lining our main walkway appeared, white-dotted and shining. I have a longstanding partiality to lines of lit trees; when I was a child in Houston, the image epitomizing the holidays for me was Post Oak Boulevard. My family would make an outing of driving down the road, under its chrome arches and between its seemingly endless rows of tree-lights. I have always loved how we reinvent places with light, infusing branches, outlining eaves and columns and, especially in NYC, fire escapes, using our built (and planted) environment as a means of expressing this inescapable sense of seasonal joy.

Christmas lights on Post Oak Boulevard in Houston, photo by Brent Allen Thale

Columbia in anticipation of light

Columbia trees lit

College Walk, Columbia

on Broadway, how New Yorkers buy Christmas trees

decking the market

Many Washingtons: “Unbuilt” monuments on display

I’ve written before about my appreciation for the remarkably interdisciplinary nature of the preservation field, but it took a visit to the National Building Museum yesterday to show me that one of those disciplines is quantum mechanics. Wait, what?

Some physicists believe in Many Worlds, created when the universe splits into branches to accommodate an action’s possible outcomes. (Fuller explanations sail over my head, and often involve Schrödinger’s poor boxed cat; google if you dare.) The National Building Museum’s “Unbuilt Washington” exhibit, which opened this past weekend, provides archival insight into what might be called Many Washingtons, the parallel capital-universes created by the numerous architectural proposals that have gone unrealized in the city’s history.

A palimpsest of sorts: my notes from the exhibition. Another note to self: always take notebook to Building Museum.

Upon entering, I overheard someone who represented the exhibition telling a reporter that its greatest value lies in inspiring “appreciation for what the city looks like.” Indeed, after spending three hours in “Unbuilt Washington,” I felt glad to live in a world where the Lincoln Memorial is not a ziggurat, the Jefferson memorial is not a skinny skyborne spout, and the Old EOB was not replaced with a twin of the Treasury (no offense to ziggurats, fountains, or the Treasury). Moreover, I gained heightened appreciation for the work that went into sculpting the city’s built environment. I hadn’t realized that so many of the capital’s landmarks resulted from design competitions, which were the source of many of the alternative designs featured in the exhibition — not only rejected proposals but also winning entries that never came to fruition. The executed structures resulted from often decades-long efforts to procure funding and finalize designs, including disagreements over which architectural styles would best reflect both the site’s intended symbolic value and the era’s ideals of how to manifest democratic government in the built environment.

James Diamond's Capitol, courtesy of Maryland Historical Society and National Building Museum

Some of the residual designs appear now — and in some cases surely did when first proposed — to be laughably absurd. Interestingly, the easiest laughs perhaps come from much more recent designs: Jim Allegro and Doug Michels’ 1996 “National Sofa” across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, complete with Jumbotron, and their 1989 Dolphin America Hotel, part of an effort to improve dolphin-human relations. Equally entertaining, however, are the otherworldly monuments that could have been. Amateur architect James Diamond appears to have thrown every architectural feature he knew onto the central bay of his Capitol building contest entry — columns, arched entry, Palladian window, round windows, pediment, frieze, balustrade, dome — and the cherry on top is an eagle weather vane that more closely resembles King Kong’s precarious pet pelican (1792). In her entry for completing the Washington Monument, stalled for decades mid-construction, Vinnie Ream Hoxie suggested converting the obelisk stub into a severely distended sculpture base, topping it with a figure of Washington requiring the balance of a pointe dancer (1876-1878). Alexander Esty’s design entry for the Library of Congress took too seriously the suggestion to avoid tall elements that might detract from the Capitol dome; he somehow burdened the Victorian Gothic style with swampy horizontality, picturing an overwrought cathedral sunk neck-deep in quicksand (1880).

Alexander R. Esty's Library of Congress, courtesy of LOC and National Building Museum

Still, other showcased ideas make a lot of sense. For example, the Kennedy Center’s unrealized curvilinear design would have been better integrated with the riverfront than the stark, rectilinear form that replaced it for budgetary reasons. In his review for The Washington Post, Philip Kennicott observes, “Some of the prize pieces in the “Unbuilt Washington” exhibition remind us what could have been if the Mall had been treated as an urban amenity rather than a national symbol.” As he points out, designs for the Mall by Robert Mills and Andrew Jackson Downing would have created pleasure gardens in place of what in recent years has received criticism as a neglected turf of trampled grass.

Vinnie Ream Moxie's Washington Monument, courtesy of LOC and National Building Museum

Kennicott begins his review by predicting that this exhibition is “the National Building Museum’s best chance at drawing blockbuster crowds in years.” I agree. The exhibition’s greatest strengths are its appeal to the imagination and accessibility to anyone who has one. As a preservationist, I especially appreciated it as an example of storytelling through archival material, and I found its stories to be directly related to our field. Preservationists often find ourselves facing multifurcations, standing at the thresholds of diverging options and outcomes. Which alterations and additions would be appropriate? Which structures should be built, kept, razed? Which side of each split will we follow; which world do we prefer? The unbuildings on display at the National Building Museum demonstrate that historical value lies not only in the decisions we convert to reality, but also the alternatives that get left behind, those ideas that slip away to get built in other worlds.

National Preservation Conference: Wrapping up, not winding down

My first National Preservation Conference experience has come and gone, and I, like the thousands of other preservationist attendees, have left Buffalo with a bundle of new ideas and a renewed sense of appreciation for having found myself in this field. I try to make sense of it all in my latest post; to read it, hop on over to the PreservationNation blog at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

9/11 at a Decade: built memories and a shattered plant

As the September 11 attacks were unfolding, I was in Houston and could not have imagined that I would find myself living in NYC on the tenth anniversary, much less studying historic preservation of buildings. To be honest, I didn’t even know at first that the World Trade Center buildings were located in NYC. When the substitute teacher in my English class received word that “someone had flown into the World Trade Center,” my immediate image was a parachutist in Chicago, all broken silk and glass, and I wondered why this strange news merited interrupting first period. Even as the true scope of what had happened began to reveal itself—first through whispered exchanges on the stairwell between classes, then when a teacher (world history, as I recall) finally succumbed to turning on the television—I was not thinking of a tenth anniversary. I was only four years into my own second decade, after all. Still, I had an awareness that I was witnessing an event that would not be forgotten—that even as we all were living it, was staking its claim of significance in the soon-to-be past. This idea persisted as I sat in my pink rocking chair watching the news with my parents and sister in our living room, after school and into the night, and as I wrote in one of my half-empty attempts at a diary an entry that consisted of only the date, which seemed sufficient. It was a sense that I had never before experienced, and have only since approached on rare occasions. Yesterday was one of them.

Yesterday morning, as I sat in the windowsill of my NYC apartment, the city clamor had a changed vibration, the cathedral bells ringing new times—8:46, 9:03—and the sirens layered with distant bagpipes and the chanting of names from my computer’s live feed of the ceremony downtown. Because my loved ones had asked that I avoid public gatherings, I planned to respect both their concerns for my safety and the gravity of the date by staying at home and willing myself back to Houston, trying to revive and relive my memories of September 11, 2001. I found myself distracted by the fragmentation of the story, the images bound by a shapeless space. The parachutist, the stairwell, the pink chair. The towers, the fires, the ash. Perhaps I had not done enough to preserve the day; I’d had the privilege of being alive for it, yet I had let it so much of it die. I shifted in the sill and knocked my jade plant to the ground, and only then did I begin to cry. Dirt and pebbles spilled across the carpet; juicy round leaves cracked, and a branch split from the stem. I gathered the green debris, set it back in the window, and stared at it until I could no longer bear to. Down the street, as I reached the florist’s block, I wove through dozens of firefighters drinking beers on the corner outside of a pub; the FDNY had held their official ceremony at the Firemen’s Memorial a few blocks away. I knew how absurd I must have looked, clutching a broken plant to my chest, given what was surely on their minds. In the flower shop, the owner declared my jade an emergency and called over one of her plant caretakers. He pulled out the plant, dangling strings of dirt, and replaced it in a refilled pot between green support sticks, then dipped my stem shard in white powder and planted it to grow roots of its own. When I returned my reconstructed little succulent once again to the window, it somehow seemed more whole, set and spread across the soil, than it had before the collapse.

I hadn’t intended to mark the day this way and worried, at first, that I would regret having been in NYC for the tenth anniversary and allowing the emotional climax to be crying over chlorophyll. But in hindsight, I don’t think that I will. I have realized that, while September 11 led to a lot of confusion, what it brought me closer to understanding was the nature of history. It seems to me that we are not the creators of history; history creates itself, and the best that any one of us can do is to cultivate our disparate experiences of it such that whatever memories we manage to keep help it to grow in the direction of light. Historic preservation is memory reconstruction, digging, rooting, salvaging pieces to create a new whole that in its fragmentation honors the truth. On the tenth anniversary of the tenth anniversary, I think this is what I will remember: a windowsill, a street corner, and a pieced-together plant. And somehow, that seems enough.

A miniscule bright side of natural disaster

It’s beginning to feel like an East Coast apocalypse… To be clear, there isn’t a lot of obvious brightness to serious natural disasters. And okay, this week’s earthquake didn’t quite qualify in that category (although the hurricane currently heading towards my NYC apartment might be a different story). But as someone who was in DC at the time of the tremble, I feel that I have the authority to say it was pretty scary…at least for a few seconds there.

For hours afterward, hypnotized by the short yet unceasing CNN news cycle, I found a bit of bittersweet satisfaction in the fact that all of the repeated stories centered on buildings. The news was not good: cracked limestone in the Washington Monument, statues and pinnacles pitched from the National Cathedral, DC school buildings closed for inspection, at least three structures — including a historic church — facing condemnation in the lovely town of Culpeper. I try to force myself to seek positive in the negative, though, and in this case, I appreciated the recognition that buildings can be casualties that deeply affect communities. From the shaking walls of the earthquake to the hunkering down for the hurricane, my fellow East Coasters have spent the week describing our experience in terms of our buildings. Such situations renew awareness of our interconnectedness with and reliance on the built environment, and that, to me, is a miniscule bright side.

Meanwhile, we can only hope that this weekend’s damage won’t be as drastic as projected. Be safe, New York friends and buildings, and everyone else in Irene’s path…I’m grateful to be sitting in Toronto and sending sunny thoughts your way.

Cracks in the Washington Monument, Charles Dharapak/AP

A statue toppled at the Washington National Cathedral, Courtesy of the National Cathedral, The Washington Post

The Packrat Gene: an almost uncanny update

Last month, I speculated that genetics and “packratism” were largely to blame for my becoming a preservationist. Today, I’ve been smiling for hours since I found in my mailbox unexpected and nearly unbelievable proof that I was right.

Since my grandma passed away last year, my aunt has been sifting through the museum of her house in New Braunfels, Texas. It has been a slow job, despite the fact that Grandma left all of her keepsakes sorted in labeled boxes and Ziploc bags—or more accurately, because of it. My aunt and parents have uncovered treasures from Grandma’s past that they didn’t know existed, and might never have found if it hadn’t been for her archival system.

She often mailed notes—always handwritten in cursive—in envelopes thickened with clipped coupons, newspaper articles, and comic strips (a habit my mom has happily since adopted). In the mail this afternoon, I received an envelope from my aunt with a note (handwritten in cursive) explaining that she had found a cartoon, clipped from a newspaper by Grandma, at the bottom of a box, and had immediately remembered my blog post.

I swear that I had never seen this before launching my defense of the archival mindset also known as packrattiness, or even talked to Grandma about the idea. See for yourself; this might look like just a comic strip, but to me, it is part of a continuing confirmation that life is a comedy, and death isn’t much of a separation, after all.