Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Alumas 9, 31.


"What? Are we to put difference of party tactics before the desperate needs of the workers? ... While countless women and children are breaking their hearts and ruining their bodies in long days of toil, we are fighting one another. Shame upon us!"
- Who said this? A quarter for this one.

Name one morning you vividly remember.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Body: Happy 2000th Birthday, Saint Paul!

Things are way different here from how they were when you were around.

Then again, maybe not so much.

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Alumas 8, 31.

This has been celebrity death week: Michael Jackson, Farrah Fawcett, Ed McMahon, and Billy Mays, the latter of whom I had just seen on Conan last week. Man.

Who's next?

Friday, June 26, 2009

Alumas 5, 31.


When was the last time you went fishing?

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Event: The Closing of Flint Central (Part 4 of 4)

Almost to the end.

I'm allowing myself a closing argument.

Flint has been in decline since before I was born, and very soon almost the entirety of its residents will only remember the city's downfall. In the last fifty years, the population has halved, and Flint has gone from an expansionist vision of a future that saw it eclipsing competing cities to the possibility of demolishing whole neighborhoods that have emptied out.

During this time there have been a lot of attempts to resurrect the city in its old glory, and many of them were, frankly, unrealistic. At times the main drag, which is the oldest road in the region and a conduit through four major cities (including Detroit) has been cordoned off for an ill-conceived pedestrian mall. Parking meters and haphazard one-way streets were installed downtown at the same time as free parking was added to the strip malls and plazas of the suburbs. AutoWorld, a hare-brained theme park expected to draw a million visitors annually was probably Flint's greatest embarrassment. However, an era of inept political leadership (two mayors have been deservedly forced out of office in the last ten years alone) has probably been more damaging.

These issues are all surrounded and dominated by the withdrawal of General Motors. In 1978, almost 80,000 people worked for GM locally. That number has shrunk by 90%, and the process continues today. Flint at its peak had 200,000 residents, and the county under 500,000. Even under expert leadership, well-coordinated institutional support, and an aggressively inventive private sector, Flint would have been doomed to a steep decline. In reality, the severity and speed of its actual decline is part of the reason this city is so analyzed, even on an international level.

The last several years have realized, finally, a more pragmatic and well-considered response. A decade of selective investment in the downtown area has prepared the way for a time when several expanding commuter colleges would go residential. In the last decade Kettering University on the West Side built dormitories, and has been followed this year by housing downtown at the University of Michigan campus. The area between the two schools has been approved for redevelopment and park space (several proposals involve brownfield left by GM along the Flint river, which could reflect the Olmstead-style Kearsley Park across town). The idea is that a sizeable mixed-income population will encourage investment and rising property values.

The East Side is instrumental to these plans. While it does not have a residential campus, it is the site of the Cultural Center, which has been an anchor and an asset to Flint for over fifty years. Mott College, which is itself expanding, and the stable neighborhood of the East Village bound this area on the south and east. If anything, this part of the city has helped shore up the downtown area far more than downtown has driven regional commerce. If Flint's current slow-growth development works as intended, in one decade we will see a viable urban corridor running from the western city limits to Dort Highway. Of course, this corridor will still be bounded by the poverty and devaluation of surrounding neighborhoods, and the disparity will be extreme. However, given the severity of disinvestment, it is hard to imagine any permanent progress being made in Flint without some consolidation and growth.

The Flint School District, too, is a critical piece of the puzzle, albeit in a less obvious way, and from a less promising position. The district has cycled through three superintendents in the last several years, and has fallen victim to hare-brained schemes of its own. Earlier this decade the graduation rate was pegged at around 40%. And yet, if you haven't noticed, most of the current redevelopment plans involve higher education in some form or another. Three colleges are in the targeted development areas, and a fourth just outside of city limits. If Flint's progress is contingent on collegiate educational growth, yet city residents are not equipped to participate in that growth, then there is every reason to think that whatever progress does occur will be segmented, or worse, superficial. Therefore: By any means necessary public schools in Flint have to fix their problems. At this point, it is as important a question as GM's continuing presence.

Flint Central and its campus are an asset that cannot be replaced. We needn't rely on sentimental reasons for saving the school. Any short-term gains achieved by demolishing the building (even if another structure is built on-site) would be offset by the inability of future development to fill such a unique and necessary niche in the city's social and geographic landscape (an architect friend of mine has observed that $27 million today could not construct a school in any style of Central's size). Central is emblematic of Frank Manley's community education experiments, which are more relevant to Flint today than ever before, and the campus has ideal access to the city's most successful institutions. True, the problem of retaining the physical structure could be ameliorated by selling the building to Powers Catholic, but the most long-term solution, the solution that enables Flint's population to be the necessary and participatory force in the city's recovery demands that the school remain with in the public school system. Get the money from our foundations and federal stimulus money, beg, borrow, and steal from alumni, find and coerce the genius behind the Kalamazoo Promise, go on Oprah and beg, do whatever it takes. Fix Central, upgrade Northern, and make these two high schools the effective poles of newer, meaner, sharper magnet programming and community education. $27 million isn't pocket change, but it isn't that much either when calculated against the capital of a reenergized city center.

Central High School could be one the most decisive elements in a retooled and realistic master plan for the City of Flint.

And in my mind, when those polished doors swing open again, its the Indians they will welcome home.

Part 1: Here.
Part 2: Here.
Part 3: Here.
Part 4: Here.

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Event: The Closing of Flint Central (Part 3 of 4)

I have no idea why this space is configured this way; it's located flush to the east side of the fourth floor of the main building, and a ladder adjacent to the entry runs up to the roof. The floorboards on the paths running around this space are rickety and not to be trusted.

The fourth floor was primarily set aside as an ROTC training space. We were unable to get to the fifth floor, which Sam told me was pretty interesting.

Trivia: Most of floors have a "secret" (that is, non-prominent) entrance to the tower stairway in their western wall. On this floor, it was this same room, though I didn't get a picture. One floor down, it was in a corner of the library. The tower has 110 steps, according to Sam.

And... this is where the waterboarding happens.

"From kindergarten to graduation, I went to public schools, and I know that they are a key to being sure that every child has a chance to succeed and to rise in the world." - Dick Cheney

So waterboarding isn't torture, and public education can be improved without sending money to the poorest schools, as shown by this district that has an offensively high dropout rate and about half the enrollment that it did twelve years ago. I know there's an appropriate metaphor somewhere here, but since this room wasn't literally used for waterboarding, I don't know that the parallels are worth the setup.

Whatever. It still gives me the shivers.

The fourth floor has this clinical look that unusual in Central as a whole.

Can you guess where this is?

Here's a clue: what do you think those glowing lines on the floor are?

They're fluorescent lights.

This is the sealed-off portion of the second gym as viewed from its balcony. The "floor" is actually a flimsy tile ceiling above a series of science classrooms.

The Model UN room. Flint's Model UN group went to Chicago every year for an annual conference hosted by the University of Chicago. Before I met my wife as a U of C college student, she assisted with this conference, and probably met friends of mine. It's a small world, and everything connects together more closely than we think.

As we wrapped up our explorations, we heard a strange sound coming from the west lawn. The a capella groups of any and all classes were invited to convene at 7 PM to sing the alma mater. Throughout the day we met students who were enrolled as freshmen and sophomores this year, and alums who graduated in the 1930s. The Flint Journal reported that the oldest attendee was in her late nineties, and would've been one of the first students to go to school in the current building.

It must have seemed very different then, fresh brick and nearly-wet mortar, saplings and young shoots.

Part 1: Here.
Part 2: Here.
Part 3: Here.
Part 4: Here.

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Concept: Michael Jackson is Dead.

New York Times: Michael Jackson, 50, Is Dead.

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Alumas 4, 31.

Those in the know knew it was a comin'.

The Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions.

In whatever terms speak to your preference, which religion belongs to you?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Event: The Closing of Flint Central (Part 2 of 4)

So I thought that I could get through this sucker in two posts, but that ain't gonna happen. I'll go for three posts and a short epilogue. Continuing on:

It's the Liberty Bell!

To the balcony...

A better view of the theater.

The main entrance... they don't make these like they used to.

And then we took a long long climb up the dark dark stair on the wraparound stairway to the tall tall tower and there we emerged into the sun at the highest point in the school. We looked out over the green green city.

Flint sprawls over 30 square miles, and even in its current state of decline the density is over 4,000 per square mile. However, all non-industrial areas were heavily planted (a hint of the primeval wood that once carpeted the whole of Michigan). Since few structures are more than three stories, in summertime and from the air, Flint looks like a vast forest.

The Flint Cultural Center includes the Longway Planetarium (the largest in the state) and the Flint Institute of Music. Before this campus was fully developed, the Oak Grove center occupied what is now the Central parking lot. According to the Picture History of Flint, this complex was "originally a hospital for the treatment of nervous and mental disorders." Moreover, underground tunnels still link up Central with the field house, power station, and various buildings in the Cultural Center, in a network that covers several city blocks. Naturally, the basements of all of these buildings are reported to be haunted.

Adjacent Whittier Middle School, with its moat and causeways.

Yes, you read that right.

An artsy shot.

I'll probably bring this up again, but part of the value of Central to future generations of Flintites is its beauty and potential as a campus. The parklike surroundings take in rolling hills, Gilkey creek, and the campus is bordered on all sides by the Cultural Center, Mott College, the prairie-like Burroughs Park, and (nearly) downtown. I understand that rehabilitation is expensive, but in addition to potential for stable housing values and urban planning, there are intangible benefits to preserving the building and campus. This is a design that points toward the importance of higher education, as well as an inextricable connection between education, culture, and commerce. It's far different from the factory-like settings that characterize most American public schooling, rural, suburban, and urban.

The tower.

The grand tour.

I know the library better than any other part of the building. That's because I was a volunteer here in 1999. During down time I drafted my first novella, a conspiracy theory teen noir called Vertebrates. It started with the sentence: "Everything was dark." Good times.

What was taught here?

Here's where we get to the heart of the problem. This was originally a gym. You can see it, right? The school had two gyms, one for boys and one for girls. This one featured a track balcony which hung over a dozen feet below the ceiling. When the usage of that space was reevaluated, this area was converted into a set of science classrooms, and the ceiling was dropped to just below the balcony. That's right, there's over twelve feet of empty space right above those ceiling tiles.

Do you see those floors? That linoleum covers hardwood flooring. The problem is more than aesthetic. The dropped ceiling hid decades of water damage from above, and the linoleum allowed the floorboards to warp undetected. This is the result:

That door cannot open.

A glimpse of the abyss above.

Hardwood floors in the classrooms.

This is the teachers' lounge, but I think it looks more like a place where a teacher would do detention.

Students' bathroom. Someone has a run-in with a can of paint.

I had the full command of my senses; and my eyes became used to the darkness, which was lit, here and there, by fitful gleams. I calculated that we were in a narrow circular gallery, probably running all round the Opera, which is immense, underground. I had once been down into those cellars, but had stopped at the third floor, though there were two lower still, large enough to hold a town. But the figures of which I caught sight had made me run away. There are demons down there, quite black, standing in front of boilers, and they wield shovels and pitchforks and poke up fires and stir up flames and, if you come too near them, they frighten you by suddenly opening the red mouths of their furnaces ...
- Gaston Leroux, The Phantom of the Opera

He then took me into his laboratory and explained to me the uses of his various machines, instructing me as to what I ought to procure and promising me the use of his own when I should have advanced far enough in the science not to derange their mechanism. He also gave me the list of books which I had requested, and I took my leave.
- Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

As she walked round it, she passed a door, that was not quite shut, and, perceiving, that it was not the one, through which she entered, she brought the light forward to discover whither it led. She opened it, and, going forward, had nearly fallen down a steep, narrow stair-case that wound from it, between two stone walls. She wished to know to what it led, and was the more anxious, since it communicated so immediately with her apartment; but, in the present state of her spirits, she wanted courage to venture into the darkness alone. Closing the door, therefore, she endeavoured to fasten it, but, upon further examination, perceived, that it had no bolts on the chamber side, though it had two on the other. By placing a heavy chair against it, she in some measure remedied the defect; yet she was still alarmed at the thought of sleeping in this remote room alone, with a door opening she knew not whither, and which could not be perfectly fastened on the inside.
- Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho

Finally, a great set for the production of any Harold Pinter play.

Please contact me if you'd like a higher-resolution image from this collection.

Part 1: Here.
Part 2: Here.
Part 3: Here.
Part 4: Here.

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Alumas 3, 31.

Yes, I will be posting more photos today, but I just got home from work after three hours of sleep and I'll be taking a break before you catch more updates here.

In the meantime...


Where is this?


Name something you'd like to see built out of Legos.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Event: The Closing of Flint Central (Part 1 of 4)

I have a lot of stories to tell from the last couple months... things got away from me during the job search. It's not like I expect everyone to want to pore over my life story. This blog is basically a record of my experiences. Memory is a system of cantilevers; it supports our understanding of ourselves.

With that in mind, the most appropriate story for me to tell first is about my recent trip to Flint. I'd been following the local news anxiously for the last several years, as each new administration threatened to close Flint Central. This month, they finally made good on that suggestion.

A bit about the school: As an institution the school is 134 years old. The present building on the East Side was erected in 1923, and its architecture reflects the wealth of the city at that time. Built of brick and limestone, the school nevertheless an ornate style incorporating gargoyles and a tower turret, and stylized molding and paneling throughout the interior. Much of the building has been retrofitted, and since many of these physical changes were short-term solutions to long-term problems, they aged the structure prematurely. Water damage is extensive, and in some areas, floorboards have warped and buckled to the point where doors cannot be opened. Elsewhere, there are dangerously high levels of asbestos and other debris.

Central has been controversial through the years, as it was the public high school that maintained the largest Caucasian population after white flight hit the North Side in the sixties and seventies, and the neighborhood just southeast of Central was responsible for racist housing compacts. In recent decades, however, the school has become the most multicultural in the city, drawing varied populations from the East and South Sides. Central's theater program flourished under Martin Jennings for many years, and alumni include a number of impressive athletes such as Jim Abbott. In the nineties, Central's scores on standardized tests often outstripped those of Southwestern Academy, which had selective admission for gifted students.

A bit about my own story here: I never attended Central as a student. I grew up nearby, in the East Village, but I attended the Valley private school for two years and then was home schooled. I developed close friendships with kids from my neighborhood, however, and when my family moved to the suburbs when I was twelve, I took pains to stay in touch. I went to Flushing High School, and most of my friends went to Central or Powers Catholic. High School, therefore, became kind of a shadow experience. I dwelt in Flushing, and formed connections with some wonderful teachers and students there, but more often then not (and especially after I could drive), I spent the evenings in Flint. As a sophomore, I went to Central's prom in the University Club (at the top of the now abandoned Genesee Towers), and as a college student, I volunteered at Central's library when I was in Flint for the summer. Today, I'm friends with several dozen Central alums, as opposed to four or five people I keep in touch with from my own high school.

Of course, you can't go to a school unless you go there. Imagination alone won't put your feet on the floor. But I felt enough a part of this building and its history that when the news came down about the school closing that I had to come back and see it myself.

On Friday, June 12th, the district opened the building up for visitors. Sam offered a ride from Chicago in exchange for gas money, and Melvin and I took him up on his offer.




Arrival; I had to park a distance from the school. The parking lot was jammed with the news, alums, and the curious, plus the art fair was going on just a block away.

Into the beast:

A couple years ago, the Board of Education decided that the school's original mascot -- the Indians -- should be changed, as it might be offensive to Native Americans. If I recall correctly, local tribal organizations seemed to support the Indian as Central's mascot. Undeterred, the administration decided to circumvent debate via the completely uncontroversial "Operation Tomahawk" (their words, not mine), during which they stole into the school and scalped scrubbed all reference of the Indians from the walls. Except for one, evidently, which escaped their notice.

Why Central's mascot has to go, but the Cleveland Indians get to keep their hideous caricature is one of the great mysteries of this world.

The Radio Station (and Record Room)


This is the new mascot, the Phoenix. Nothing suggests hope like a bird that rises from its own ashes, and nothing suggests such an apotheosis like shuttering a school and scattering its students to the wind.

Given that Central closed anyway, would it have killed the Board to let the school keep its mascot for the last few years?

Note the art-moderne door handles. Also, note the sign warning that nothing should be kept within 36 inches of this shelf, and the table leaned up against the lower left-hand side.

And speaking of safety scissors:

Holy meltdown, Batman!

I had to wait until college to become a socialist. Not that Che Guevara is especially deep underground as far as revolutionary heroes go, but the closest thing to this I would've caught in Flushing would've been a Clinton/Gore '92 sticker (in 1997). There I go, ranting about the Marketplace of Ideas again!

Now, a large number of theatre pictures:

I've taken pictures in this space a half-dozen times, but I can never get the light quite right.


Back when I did theater, the fly space was one of my favorite places to be:

Into the scene shop:

More art-moderne.

Please contact me if you'd like a higher-resolution image from this collection.

Part 1: Here.
Part 2: Here.
Part 3: Here.
Part 4: Here.

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