More on the Greenway

Yesterday, I posted a draft of a paper that I’m planning to give (well, “to post”) at the annual CHAT conference. This year, the conference is dedicated to pilgrimage and movement with all the complexities that these words entail. I proposed a paper that considered my every day pilgrimage through a local park which has led me to unpack this break from my everyday life along spatial and temporal lines. 

The more that I’ve mulled this paper over, I can’t help think that it will benefit from some revision. As a way to kick start this process, I’m going to offer some random thoughts here that maybe will find their way into my paper.

First, I’ve been thinking a bit more about my somewhat lazy use of the concept of communitas. In Victor Turner’s work this term refers to the experience of social equality that occurs during pilgrimage or other kinds of ritual life. I think my use of the term would benefit from re-reading Edith Turner’s book Communitas: The Anthropology of Collective Joy (2011). My thinking is that the concept of radical equality experienced through communitas could extend beyond the limits of human community and considered as a way to understand a transformed relationship with our physical environment. I’m less concerned here with the experiences of stones, trees, animals, or house foundations and more interested in considering whether our relationship to these things changes as a result of the suspension of at least some of the rules of every day life. 

More importantly, does this suspension of the rules of everyday life open up the potential to experience space in new and significant ways. It would probably be useful, I suppose, to consider aspects of de Certeau’s arguments in his The Practice of Everyday Life that distinguishes between strategy and tactics, but, if I recall de Certeau correctly he suggests that tactics include every day practice that seeks to complicate and appropriate efforts of the state to structure practices whether through design or such structured encounters as ritual. The role, in this context, of every day rituals, such as the momentary experience of pilgrimage that comes from my morning walk in the park, remains less clear. On the one hand, there is no doubt that the experience of being in the park is shaped in part by the administrative work that defines the space as a park. On the other hand, my ritualized encounter with this space at least questions (if not subverts) the limits of the human work invested to create the controlled landscape that is the park itself.

This brings me to my second point that will require a bit of development. My daily pilgrimage commences when I cross the earthen flood wall that separates the Greenway from my neighborhood. This simple, if mildly transgressive act, of crossing a wall always triggers me to think about the recent outpouring of literature on walls of various kinds (for example). Walls, for all their imposing monumentality, functioned in a wide range of ways. As Randall Maguire’s articles, for example, have shown walls can go from representing a common space for a community (such as the early fences that separated Mexico from the US) to barriers to movement and marks of division. The earthen and concrete walls in Grand Forks, for example, represent protection from the unpredictable and often violent forces of Red River and this function reinforces its role as a barrier between the ordered life of the community and the less controlled forces of nature. The design of the concrete flood walls, with their molded ashlar-like pattern deliberately evoked stone fortifications of antiquity. The earthen walls, whatever their intended aesthetic, would have made some viewers think of the fortifications at Mandan towns such as Double Ditch where ditches and earthen bases for palisades formed barriers. In this context, crossing the wall involved the kind of tactical (sensu de Certeau) move both historically and in the space of Grand Forks, North Dakota that depended upon the intentional misrecognition of the wall’s function. Despite its appearance, the wall isn’t meant as a barrier to human movement at all. This is simply a side effect of its official function to prevent the inundation of the main area of human settlement during the seasonal floods.

So crossing the flood wall requires a tactical act of misrecognition of their function to enter into the space of pilgrimage along the river. This movement initiates the space of communitas where traditional social relations between things and individuals is suspended.

The final thing that I’d like to include in my paper is a brief musing on the “dog park at the end of the universe.” I no longer take my dogs there, in part, because they can’t be trusted around other people or dogs, but also because I find it so very depressing. There’s something about the history of the park that makes setting aside some of it for our dogs to romp and roam intensely sad. The juxtaposition of the former neighborhood homes that stood where the dog park is now creates a melancholy sense of waste or perhaps irreverence. I wonder if I struggled with confronting the modern ability to unsentimentally repurpose a landscape or the expectation that the past will some vanish beneath the pressing need of the present.

Pilgrimage CHAT: Walking the Grand Forks Greenway

Next month, I’m presenting a little paper in the form of a blog post at the 2021 CHAT conference devoted to pilgrimage. I don’t remember what my paper is titled, but here’s the abstract: In April 1997, the Red River of the North overran its bank and inundated the cities of Grand Forks, North Dakota and East Grand Forks, Minnesota forcing over 50,000 residents to evacuate and significant damage to both cities. In the aftermath of this flood, the two cities demolished a number of neighborhoods that stood close to the river, installed a series of massive floodways that run for nearly 15 kms along the course of the Red River, and constructed a new series of pump and lift stations. This work created a massive park, known as the Grand Forks Greenway, of over 8 square kilometers festooned with bike paths, river access, and recreation areas and separated from the residential and commercial areas of the city by a series of imposing earthen and cement flood walls pierced by gates.

I don’t think that’ll be the paper that I write though. In fact, I’m thinking more and more about how I might integrate the notion of pilgrimage to the space of Lincoln Park, a large urban park that is part of the Grand Forks Greenway.

Here’s my first effort to say something compelling.

Daily Pilgrimage, Movement, and Place on the Grand Forks Greenway

Almost every day for the past four or five years, I’ve gone for a walk through Lincoln Park on the Grand Forks, North Dakota Greenway. The walks aren’t terribly long, usually between 3 and 6 miles, and they follow a fairly standard course. They happen all year around from the heat of the summer to all but the coldest days in the winter. My walks take place in the rain, the snow, and the wind. I’m almost always accompanied by one of my two dogs: Argos (aka Argie “The Bargepole”) or Milo (aka “Milsey”). If the dogs were to tell it, they’d say that the walks are for them, but I do remind them that I make these trips without them sometimes and sometimes on my bike. In other words, these walks aren’t just a routines for the dogs, but fundamental to my daily routine.

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Pilgrimages, like most rituals, are types of routines that wrench one out of mundane existence and push one into a different space defined by movement, reflection, and even spirituality. In some cases, of course, a pilgrimage might be a once in a lifetime event, such as the Hajj, but in many cases, pilgrimages can happen more regularly. It seems to me that the key characteristic of a pilgrimage is not its frequency, but its relationship to the mundane aspects of daily life. As such, pilgrimages, as a type of experience, represents a particularly vivid example of the kind of relational category that archaeologists have increasingly used to think about their world.

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My everyday life is deeply embedded in the digital world of screens, emails, documents, and data. My time on walks in the park is distinctly analogue. My mundane world varies relatively little depending on seasons, despite living in place where the seasons are intense. Even during the most bitter cold or the hottest late-summer, during draughts or floods, in the raking light of the winter or the dusty harvest clouds of autumn, emails continue to arrive, text continues to require editing, students continue to want guidance, and colleagues consultation. My daily pilgrimage disrupts my tendency to immerse myself in such mundane tasks and forces me to confront the variability of the seasons and weather, happenstance of encounters in a public space, and my own thoughts as they wander over the course of an hour without the advantage of regular professional (or household) distractions that would allow them to take purchase.

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Part of what allows for the distinction between my daily pilgrimage and what I’ve called my “mundane world” is the space of my daily sojourns. My walk begins ordinarily enough in my backyard and then I head due east down 8th avenue which is interrupted after about 200 meters, by the 8 m tall bulk of a flood wall that forms the western edge of the Grand Forks Greenway. The Greenway runs for nearly 15 km on both sides of the Red River of the North which snakes its way though our small community of around 100,000 people on its way to the Hudson Bay some 1000 km to the north. The river floods regularly as it runs along the bottom of the long vanished Lake Agassiz, a massive glacial lake that discharged some 9,000 or 10,000 years ago, and in 1897 and again in 1997 massive floods nearly destroyed the cities of Grand Forks, North Dakota and East Grand Forks, Minnesota. The second of these floods prompted the evacuation of the cities and this constituted the largest peacetime evacuation of an American city prior to Hurricane Katrina landfall in New Orleans in 2005.

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My daily pilgrimage passes a pumping station that serves to maintain the back pressure on the Grand Forks sewage and storm drain system and prevent flood waters from flowing through the drains and entering the city. It is here that pipes run beneath the flood wall and through the pump station that I go over the flood wall to enter the Greenway. This part of the Greenway is called Lincoln Park. It’s the largest park in the Greenway system and includes all the amenities common the an American park: walking and cycling trails, a frisbee golf course, some open fields for sports, a dog park, a warming house and, in the winter an ice rink and cross-country ski trails. There are places for picnics and a boat ramp for access to the river. Just south of Lincoln park is a small golf course. 

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This rather ordinary setting seems like a hardly appropriate setting for a pilgrimage, but Lincoln Park does had a somewhat hidden past. Prior the 1997 flood, Lincoln Park was a thriving neighborhood but the creation of the Greenway and the the new network of flood walls required the razing of the homes and an elementary school here which would have stood on the “wet” side of the walls. The remains of this neighborhood, however, haunt the park. Trees continue to mark the routes of roads, the regular pattern of depressing in the park’s well mowed grass follow the rhythms of razed houses, and from time to time bricks, concrete pavement, and gravel paths peak through the grass to remind us of this place’s past. There is a small sculpture and a map made of inlaid bricks commemorating the lost neighborhood, but someone not familiar with the story behind these features might miss their meaning.

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The visible and invisible history of Lincoln Park presents a compelling backdrop to my daily pilgrimages which takes me onto a path that follows the course of the river between the endemic cottonwoods that inhabit the water’s edge and the ornamental cypress and crab apple trees, the elms that line the now vanished streets, and the pine trees that stood at the edges of properties. White tail deer, squirrels, foxes, songbirds, hawks, eagles, owls, and the occasional human runner, canine companion, and occasional park employee, patrolling police officer, and metal detectorist stare my pilgrimage space. The initial, post-flood planning stages for the Greenway emphasized its potential to act as both a recreation area and as a riparian corridor for local and migratory wildlife. At the same time, the various environmental studies of Greenway acknowledged that many of the species present along the river’s course had a long history living in urban environments and sharing their space with both people and our domesticated animals. Like the pipes managed to control the flow of river water back into the city, the riparian corridor does not end at the edges of flood walls, but extends into the neighborhoods that flank the river. 

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The landscape of Lincoln Park contributes to its status as a pilgrimage site by emphasizing that it defies easy definition. It is neither a purely natural space, if such places are indeed possible in the Anthropocene, nor a space dominated entirely by humanity. The visible remains of earlier human activities overgrown and obscured by both natural and cultural processes transform Lincoln Park into the sort of liminal place that characterizes pilgrimage routes. Its temporal state as a place in transition from a tidy small-town neighborhood to corridor designed to both accommodate the spring flood waters and the movement of wildlife ensures that the landscape explicitly resists simple definition. Like so many discussions of time in archaeology, Lincoln Park makes clear the past is not distinct from the contemporary and both exist in a space of blurry boundaries.

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By complicating our every day expectations that the human and the natural occupy tidy categories and the past and contemporary are distinct, the park encourages us to establish a sense of communitas, to use Victor Turner’s fortuitous concept, not only with past and contemporary individuals (and my canine companions), but also with those non-human features of the landscape, from the raking light of the winter sun to the unseen scurrying creatures on the riverbanks or the depressing depressions marking out overgrown roads.

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My daily pilgrimage, then, introduces me to a complicated time and space that is distinct from the tidy definitions traced by the imperious modernity of our daily lives. 

Two Abstract Thursday: pilgrimCHAT and Teaching and Learning Archaeology of the Contemporary Era

As my race to finish up lingering summer projects before so-called “vacation” and the start of the semester, this includes writing two abstracts with August 1 deadlines. The first abstract is for the November pilgrimCHAT conference and the second is for a book on “Teaching and Learning the Archaeology of the Contemporary Era” edited by Gabriel Moshenska

I generally suck at writing abstracts and usually struggle to produce papers that make good on what the abstract promises. That said, it is abstract time, so here goes.

Abstract the First: pilgrimCHAT [291]

In April 1997, the Red River of the North overran its bank and inundated the cities of Grand Forks, North Dakota and East Grand Forks, Minnesota forcing over 50,000 residents to evacuate and significant damage to both cities. In the aftermath of this flood, the two cities demolished a number of neighborhoods that stood close to the river, installed a series of massive floodways that run for nearly 15 kms along the course of the Red River, and constructed a new series of pump and lift stations. This work created a massive park, known as the Grand Forks Greenway, of over 8 square kilometers festooned with bike paths, river access, and recreation areas and separated from the residential and commercial areas of the city by a series of imposing earthen and cement flood walls pierced by gates.

This static presentation, supplemented with video, photographs, and possibly audio, seeks to explore the Grand Forks Greenway as a corridor for movement of water, animals, and humans that is defined by a series of walls. The text will consider the tension between walls and movement and the way in which the two co-create the experience, environment, and history of this distinctive landscape.

Abstract the Second: Teaching and Learning Archaeology of the Contemporary Era (502)

From the early 1980s, campus archaeology has represented a key element in the training of archaeologists. Controlled excavations and surveys have introduced students not only to the basics of archaeological methods and recording practices, but also the history of their campuses. A number of publications have also demonstrated the pedagogical potential associated with the systematic documentation of material culture associated with contemporary campus life. 

This contribution will document my experiences teaching a two month class focused on two abandoned buildings on the campus of the University of North Dakota prior to their destruction. Students in the class were given very basic instructions on how to document the buildings and the any post-abandonment contents. When they encountered the complexity of the buildings and the assemblages, however, our system of documentation broke down and in its place emerged a more organic and dynamic form of engagement with the content and architecture of these buildings. Rather than trying to impose structure this moment of anarchic adaptation, I let the experiment run its course. The results were a remarkable degree of student engagement, valuable instances of discovery, expressions of creativity, and successful outreach.

Thing Things Thursday: More Sun Ra, Sheffield, and Rivers

Every day it feel more and more like the end of the summer season and the beginning of fall. It certainly doesn’t help that smoke from the Canadian wildfires has filled the air giving the entire city a bit of autumnal light. As a result, my attention span is being dragging in multiple directions as I try to wrap up end of the summer tasks and gear up for the fall semester. It feels like a good time to do another three things Thursday.

Thing the First

With all this talk about sending billionaires into space, it was a great time to receive the collections of Sun Ra’s poetry recently republished by Chicago gallery Corbett vs. Dempsey. The reprints are done with meticulous attention to detail and manage to reproduce the feeling of the these sometimes casual and often often simple publications.

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For example, the liner notes from Jazz in Silhouette from 1959 appear in their blurry and smudged mimeograph purple creating an intriguing contrast between their futuristic content and their reproduction which situates them in the past. In these poems Sun Ra reminds us that the future is the world of the impossible and that we have to “consider the negative plain of existence” and

The prophets of the past belong to the past
The space prophets of the greater future
Belong to the greater future.   

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It is great to see the poems reproduced in their original form. Two of my favorites appear his most famous book of poetry, The Immeasurable Equation (1972): “The Cosmic Myth,” and “Black Myth” which so clearly embody key aspects of Sun Ra’s worldview. “The Cosmic Myth” starts with the lines “A new name is always a great adventure | A cosmic name is a cosmic word …”

“Black Myth” engages with Ra’s challenging sense of myth and time declaring:

A better destiny I decree
Such tales and tales that are told
Are not my myths
But other myths of Black mythology
Radiate from beyond the
      measured borders of time.

Thing the Second

Like so many people in the world of archaeology, I’m quite distressed by the closing of the archaeology department at the University of Sheffield. Flint Dibble offers a nice summary of the situation in this Twitter thread. As he and many other commentators note, the most challenging aspect of this closure is that this department was among the most important and successful in the English speaking world.

Like many people, I can’t help but feeling that its closure marks a new phase in the transformation of higher education on a global scale. The debate is no long about metrics for success, which Sheffield would appear to achieve without a shadow of the doubt, or the value of hard won intangibles such as prestige and brand recognition, but about something else entirely. The cynic in me makes it easy enough to attribute the closure to a crass power play on the part of the political leadership of the university. The archaeology program at Sheffield may well be a kind of tall poppy  cut down in a rather pure expression of power.  

It is hard to understand how it would be possible to resist gestures such as these. Over the past decade, in the long simmering crisis in higher education, faculty especially in the humanities and arts have worked to construct strategies designed to promote their programs on campus, to boost enrollments, to demonstrate the utility of their programs for the 21st century, and to extend their reach beyond campus.

At the same time, faculty have often critiqued past generations of faculty for not doing enough to anticipate the changing political, economic, and ideological landscape of higher education. This is often done in an oblique way through criticism of ivory tower faculty who were and remain out of touch with reality and incapable of adapting their programs. As frequent are criticisms of university administrators who are depicted as a hostile to the humanities, arts, and social sciences or simply incompetent. While these critiques have remained in the background surrounding the closing of Sheffield’s program, they often raise their heads when the conversations turn to the challenges facing humanities, arts, and social science programs more broadly.  

I can’t escape the feeling that the increasingly arbitrary cuts to programs will reveal the ultimate futility of well-meaning faculty efforts to preserve their programs and perhaps cause us to pull back from many of the least charitable critiques of faculty in the past. Perversely, it push us to ask much harder questions that do not involve sustaining our programs, our jobs, our careers, or our work and instead focus on what we should do when we know that our work will not matter to our institutions and our fields.

Thing the Third     

I’ve been chewing on an abstract that I need to prepare before the end of the month for the 2021 CHAT conference whose topic is movement. As I’ve mentioned before (somewhere on this blog!), I’ve wanted to write about the Grand Forks Greenway and to reflect on the tension between the walls designed to manage the flow and flooding of the Red River of the North and the river’s movement through the landscape, our engagement (and movement alongside the river’s course), and our ability to navigate over and around the walls put in place after the disastrous flood of 1997.

Unlike a traditional conference, the “pilgrim CHAT” will be a month-long festival open to all sort of multi-, trans-, and new media kinds of explorations of the topic of movement. This complicates my abstract all the more as it forces me to think about my topic not just in the sense of academic content, but also as media. I have almost no experience doing this kind of thing, but this project seems like a great opportunity to broaden my horizons a bit and develop a greater appreciation for how our new media world might change scholarly communications. 

Midcentury Housing in Grand Forks (A Final, Final Report)

As summer comes to a close (a few trees are recognizing the shorter days and starting to hint at their early fall transformations), I’m trying to wrap up a few projects. Yesterday, I posted an almost final draft of my paper on Cyprus in the Long Late Antiquity

Today, I wanted to post the very much final version (actually the version that we submitted to the state) of our windshield survey of mid-century housing in Grand Forks, ND. My colleague, Cindy Prescott, once quipped that it was possible to understand the history of 20th-century housing in the US (or at least the Midwest) by driving from downtown Grand Forks to the south. This is indeed the case with each successive neighborhood containing slightly later material, architecture, styles, and arrangements. 

The report was co-authored with Susan Caraher who is Grand Forks’s Historical Preservation Commission Administrator. I’m pretty happy with how it turned out, although I think there’s a good bit more to be done with the data that we’ve collected. 

You can download the report here

Three Things Thursday: Agency, Data, and Digital Archaeology

One of the great things about spending quality time with the Western Argolid Regional Project datasets is that it gets me thinking about data and digital archaeology more broadly. It is merely a happy coincidence that an a trio of interesting articles on digital archaeology have appeared over the last few weeks.

So for this week, we can do a little three thing Thursday that hits one some intriguing new publications.

Thing the First

I try to read most things that Jeremy Huggett writes and to my mind, he is among the most thoughtful commentators in the field of digital archaeology. His most recent article, in Open Archaeology, titled “Algorithmic Agency and Autonomy in Archaeological Practice” explores the nature of agency in digital archaeology at the moment where we are moving toward more sophisticated and complex digital tools. Huggett considers not only the changing notion of agency in light of the increasingly sophisticated technology used by archaeologists, but also traces a future trajectory that frames the need to consider the ethical implications of digital tools that archaeologists use to make their arguments. 

He emphasizes the way that complex algorithms create “black boxes” that obscure the workings of the technology that archaeologists use in their analysis. This is not a kind of luddite alarmism, but instead anchored in a thoughtful understanding of recent trends in our field. For example, Huggett notes that advance in algorithms already allow computers to scan massive numbers of satellite and aerial photographs for patterns that suggest cultural artifacts. Similar technologies may soon allow archaeologists to stitch together highly fragmentary wall painting or identify ceramic forms on the basis of broken sherds. These kinds of technologies rely on algorithms that process far more data and consider nearly infinitely more variables than a human could consider, and this allows them draw unanticipated conclusions that exceed the typical process of hypothesis testing at the core of archaeological inquiry. 

These algorithmic processes not only have the potential to disrupt the conventional process of hypothesis testing at the core of academic archaeology, but also produce results in such a way that they far exceed the conventional terms of archaeological explanation. At this point, Huggett would argue, the archaeologist has ceded a good bit of interpretative agency to technologies and algorithms. By giving up an understanding of process, we run the risk of giving up ethical control over our inquiries. We need look no further than recent controversies around facial recognition software that drew on databanks that were overwhelming white and this has created unexpected biases in biometric recognition practices (that tend to discriminate against non-white individuals).

In short, Huggett’s work is pushing archaeology to anticipate the ethical implications of ceding agency to algorithms that often are far more complex than the kind of routine hypothesis testing at the core of conventional archaeological practices.

Thing the Second

Néhémie Strupler’s recent article in Internet Archaeology is a remarkable first step toward a more critical practice in publishing. Titled “Re-discovering Archaeological Discoveries. Experiments with reproducing archaeological survey analysis,” Strupler compares archived and published date from three archaeological projects to the published results from those projects. Needless to say, the results are eye-opening. The data from two of the three projects (including my own Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project) did not coincide with the results published in their more formal, paper publications. 

This posed two problems for Strupler. First, it suggests that existing peer review practices do not extend to exploring the relationship between archived and published data and more traditional, predominantly textual results. This is particularly glaring in the case of the Pyla-Koutsopetria project where the data was published in advance of the formal survey publication (although perhaps not in advance of our manuscript being circulated for review).  

The second problem is concerns about the reproducibility of data-driven archaeological argument making. How robust must datasets be – in terms of metadata and paradata – to allow for scholars to reasonably test the results of archaeological analysis. More importantly, how robust must datasets be to allow scholars to go beyond merely testing published arguments, but propose counter arguments or new research directions on the basis of publicly available data. As I am involved in preparing three new datasets for both conventional and digital publication, this article provided some substantial food for thought. 

Thing the Third

Readers of my blog know that I’ve been dipping my toe into some local heritage work and CRM. One of things that this work produced was a substantial data set that describes mid-century housing in Grand Forks, North Dakota. The dataset was dutifully submitted to the State Historical Society of North Dakota as a table in a PDF (as they requested) and will for the foreseeable future languish on my hard drive as a flat table. 

This all introduces the nice little summative statement offered by Christopher Nicholson, Rachel Fernandez and Jessica Irwin titled “Digital Archaeological Data in the Wild West: the challenge of practising responsible digital data archiving and access in the United States” from Internet Archaeology. As they point out, the current state of digital archiving of archaeological data in the US is a patchwork of practices. Many states, for example, continue to lack policies or procedures for archiving the digital datasets that back many of the reports that CRM and heritage processionals produce on a regular basis. Private CRM firms lack any motivation to make data that they archive available publicly. Local heritage units, such as our Historical Preservation Commission, lack the resources to archive data, reports, and studies that they have commissioned and often look to the state for this or beyond, to the federal government. 

In any event, this isn’t meant as a criticism of underfunded state, local, and federal agencies, but rather to note that archaeology as field is still struggling to come to terms with its digital footprint. 

Informal Urbanism in the Post-COVID World

Over the last ten years or so, I’ve thought a bit here and there about urbanism. Some of this was motivated by my time thinking about and working in the boom towns of Western North Dakota’s Bakken oil patch. More recently, however, doing some research on the mid-century development of Grand Forks has likewise stimulated my interest in contemporary urbanism.

These interests prompted me to submit an application to serve on our town planning and zoning committee. We’ll see if my application is accepted.

It also got me thinking a bi about how the post-COVID world will shape urbanism. It seems to me that most of mid-century (and even earlier) urbanism sought to encourage clear delineations between spaces of work and domestic space with the post-war suburb representing a set of values that equated middle class lives with clear division between family life and work life. This distinguished the post-war company man from the kind of labor regimes defined by the company town, the farm, or the apartment above the shop.

The middle class suburban fantasy, of course, has broken down in multiple ways. In some cases, the dream of owning a home in a leafy suburbs is simply not economically possible for middle class Americans who have found themselves priced out of major housing markets. 

At the same time, the notion of discrete places for work and domestic life has become complicated by the rise of the gig economy. The workers we met and talked to in the Bakken, for example, often earned middle class incomes for their work, but their need to work long shifts, often on or near the work site, broke down the tidy divisions between domestic and work spaces. Moreover, their participation in an increasing national or even global version of the gig economy required a mobile life style that disrupted the notion of the fixed suburban abode.

The gig economy also blurs the work home divide even for individuals who live in conventional suburbs. The home office is now a standard feature in the suburban home and it often represents a good bit more than the “den” where household finances, for example, were managed or the occasional work project completed away from the office. The COVID pandemic will likely accelerate the trend toward working at home and make the home office all the more important part of domestic architecture. 

Of course, working at home especially in the gig economy has parallels with long standing practices associated with informal urbanism. In our town, there are a couple perpetual yard sales and I suspect, if one knew where to look, more than a few businesses run out of homes. Food trucks offer another example of informal urban practices that create more fluid urban environments. Parking lots at rapidly declining shopping centers have become spaces for occasional festivals and seasonal sales of produce and Christmas trees, and manifestations of latent potential for parking, but also for forms of reuse.   

If the future of work dissolves some of the fundamental expectations that created the post-war suburb, it is interesting to think about what forms of urbanism will replace it. To my mind, informal urbanism opens a grey area between the well-ordered expectation of the post-war years and the future urban forms that embrace changing economic and social realities of 21st labor. I can’t help imagine the leafy suburb developing into a more dynamic patchwork of business, home offices, housing, and gathering places that defy post-war standards. The question is how do we support these changes in a way that encourage more dynamic spaces throughout our communities while at the same time recognizing that these are not viable solutions to systemic problems in our economy that render more and more people reliant on ad hoc approaches to maintain a vestige of post-war middle class life.

Midcentury Housing in Grand Forks: Almost Final Report!

As readers of this blog know, I’ve been working with my wife, Susan Caraher, on a report from a windshield survey of post-war housing in Grand Forks, ND.

We have a mostly, almost, pretty much complete draft of our report, and you can read it here.

There are a few caveats:

First, I’m not entirely pleased with how I presented some of the data on maps and graphs. I can do better than this and maybe I will refine some of this before we submit the final version.

Second and most significantly, I have no included the massive data dump upon which most of this analysis relies. This will be a table with over 3,000 homes documented over the course of the survey.

In any event, enjoy the report here.

Recent Research on Mid Century Grand Forks

If you read my blog regularly, you’ll have encountered some of my recent work on the mid-century architecture and landscape of Grand Forks, North Dakota. That said, I’m giving a paper today at the North Dakota CLG conference which presents the work that I’ve done with my wife, Susan Caraher, on mid-century Grand Forks alongside some significant recent work done by the folks in Bismarck.  

If you’ve been reading this blog regularly, you’re probably pretty familiar with what I’m going to say in this paper, but I’ve added some snazzy powerpoint slides and I think the perspective offered in this paper is rather more polished than in other iterations.

If you’re interested in hearing me give this paper in the flesh, the conference is open to the public and registration is free. You can register for today’s session here.

Or you can read the paper that I’ll deliver here: Recent Research on Mid-Century Grand Forks.

Midcentury Landscapes of Grand Forks, North Dakota

Next week, I’m giving my first paper as a historic archaeologist. It’ll be on the midcentury landscape of Grand Forks, North Dakota and summarize a series of projects that my wife and I have been working on under the auspices of the Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission. Here’s the information about my paper and a sign up link and the like.  The main reason that I’m delivering the paper is that Susie is running the conference, but her work is absolutely central to what I’ll have to say (and it’s a comfort to know that she’ll be in attendance, if someone asks me a hard question!). You can read more about our work here

My current plan it to keep my paper to between 15 and 20 minutes and divide it into three parts. Here’s a bit of a draft. 

Part the First

I probably don’t need to explain the challenge facing historical preservation and heritage officials in the 21st century as the massive number of buildings and sites constructed during the post war decades become eligible for National Register nomination. We’ve casually estimated that in Grand Forks alone over 5000 buildings will become potentially eligible for nomination on the basis of the 50 year rule alone (which isn’t to say that these buildings will be good candidates!). Over the last few years, the Historic Preservation Commission has embarked upon a concerted effort to develop a critical inventory of our mid-century buildings which will hopefully guide our efforts to preserve, document, and interpret the post-war landscape of our community. My brief remarks today will sketch out our work and look a bit to future projects.  

As an aside, I have a bit of sentimental attachment to this problem in past because one of the earliest efforts to frame this situation was Rebecca Siders, Susan Chase, and David Ames 1992 historical context for suburbanization in New Castle County, Delaware which, in turn, inspired Ames’s and McClelland’s National Register guidelines for evaluating and documenting residential suburbs. I grew up amid the suburbs studies by Siders, Chase, and Ames and so the work with the Grand Forks Historical Preservation Commission gave me a chance to think about both my new and my old homes.

To return to Grand Forks, we are very fortunate to have a solid foundation for the study of the post-war development of the town. Steve Martens context study of the important local architecture firm, Well-Denbrook (led by Theodore Wells and, from 1949, Myron Denbrook) traced a major influence in the introduction and development of mid-century architecture in the region. To take just one example, their studio at 1701 Cherry Street sits amid a thriving mid-century neighborhood and from its construction in 1959 advertised the aesthetic and practical merits of the Desert Modern style with its explicit and exposed use of modern materials, low-slung style with long horizontal windows, and deep overhanging eaves. It is at present the only individually listed mid-century building in Grand Forks.

Two years ago, the Wells-Denbrook studio was happily joined by a six-pack of mid-century schools which formed a multi-property nomination. These schools shared many of the key architectural features of the Denbrook designed studio including sprawling low-set design, the use of visible, modern structural elements, recessed entrances, and overhanging eaves. Situated adjacent to parks and green spaces in newly developed neighborhoods, these schools responded to a population inflated by the post-war baby boom and the movement of people into Grand Forks from surrounding rural communities. Grand Forks’ population further benefited from the growth of the University, the opening of the Grand Forks Air Force Base in 1957, and ongoing development of post-war transportation links that connected the city to the region and the world. Here we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that the Grand Forks Municipal Airport terminal built in modern “WPA” style opened in 1941 and represented a harbinger of things in the city. This building was approved for the National Register in 2020.

Part the Second

In 2020, amid the COVID pandemic which grounded most of my fieldwork plans, the Grand Forks commission undertook a systematic “windshield” survey of mid-century housing. We had four goals for this survey. First, we aimed to produce a basic inventory of the nearly 4000 homes built between 1945 and 1970. We also sought to identify any particularly notable examples that might have ties to a “named architect. On a more mundane level, we wanted to establish a local typology of housing architecture and finally determine where and whether particularly well-preserved neighborhoods or streetscapes existed around town.

We did this by merging data from city records with autopsy which allowed us to create GIS maps of the city that not only tracked its growth, but also to identify key trends in the development of mid-century housing. For housing types, we followed NDCRS Architectural Site Form Manual and identified each according to six well-established types Plain Residential, Cape Cod, Ranch/Rambler, New Traditional, Hip Roof Box, or Prairie (or Desert) Contemporary. 

This work allowed us to understand some basic trends in the development of mid-century housing in Grand Forks. The earliest post-war trends in housing saw both the infilling of pre-war neighborhood along the existing urban grid and the establishment of new subdivisions with new characteristics. On the one hand, houses built on infilled lots prior to 1950 tended to rather varied in style with pre-war housing forms – namely plain residential – sharing the street with more contemporary Cape Cod (revival), hip roof box, and ranch style homes.  On the other hand,  there were signs of new standards in neighborhood design emerging. For example, the Letnes subdivision featured the evocatively named “Sunset Drive” which curves to the north and divides leaving a small, leaf-shaped island of grass in the middle of the two roads. The lots in this subdivision were larger than pre-war lots and the neighborhood also included some of the earliest “ranch/rambler” style architecture. 

The 1950s saw the appearance of Prairie or Desert modern style homes, particularly in more affluent subdivisions that extended south of Grand Forks traditional downtown. These rubbed shoulders with increasingly common ranch or rambler style homes in neighborhoods set along curving tree lined streets and arranged close to newly constructed mid-century schools and churches. The unpaved alleyways of common the pre-war street grid make way for larger backyards and front facing garages. These features both mark the arrival of automobile culture to Grand Forks and new expectations of privacy where larger lots and back yards before a focus of family life. By the end of the decade, Grand Forks’ mid-century neighborhoods enjoyed tree-lined streetscapes defined by the regular rhythm of lawn, sidewalk, driveway which were common across the United States. 

By the 1960s, curving streets and ranch style homes stretched ever further south from the traditional downtown and complemented with the growth of South Washington Street as a major commercial corridor featuring shopping centers fronted by parking lots and by 1964, the state’s first indoor mall, the South Forks Plaza designed by DeRemer, Harrie and Kennedy. This firm, the descendant of Joseph and Samual Bell DeRemer’s important interwar practice, also designed churches, such as Holy Family Catholic Church (1961) and schools, such as Lewis and Clark Elementary (1952/3) and contributed alongside Wells-Denbrook to produce an emerging mid-century architectural koine. It is worth noting that Grand Forks also saw the occasional building by more national architects such as Edward Sovik’s Calvary Lutheran Church (1962) and the 1966 Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints which followed the nationally syndicated “Adams 1” plan. 

Part the Third

As this brief summary of our work to inventory post-war housing has shown, mid-century Grand Forks represents not only a significant expansion of the city’s single family housing stock, but also the emergence of an urban landscape influenced by national trends in architecture and planning. To develop a comprehensive image of how Grand Forks developed during the post-war period and to understand the challenges associating with preserving representative aspects of the mid-century urban landscape, we need to consider the interplay not only between pre-war and post-war development in Grand Forks, but also the relationship between mid-century housing, schools, churches, commercial buildings, and green spaces in town. At present, we have studies of schools and an inventory of mid-century homes and we feel like this is a good start. 

Our next steps, which will begin in 2021, involve the nomination of one of the earliest post-war subdivisions, the Baukol subdivision, for the National Register. Standing immediately adjacent to the National Register listed Riverside Neighborhood with its 1941 WPA pool pavilion and typical pre-war housing, the Baukol subdivision was largely constructed in 1946 and is a remarkably well-preserved neighborhood. The plain residential style homes reflect considerable continuity with the Riverside Neighborhood, but also show the signs of new trends in housing including the use of new materials and their consistency in style. 

We also plan to assess the remains of the 1950s flood wall established to mitigate the dangers of the Red Rivers springtime floods. The immediate predecessor to the more massive and intrusive post-1997 flood wall, the 1950s flood wall represented the post-war effort to protect the growing suburban sprawl of the city from the vicissitudes of the river and played a significant role in the reimagining of Grand Forks as a mid-century community. 

We also are looking ahead to future projects which involve inventorying mid-century church architecture and commercial buildings which play such a key role in establishing the distinctive mid-century character to Grand Forks southern neighborhoods. At present we have only inventoried single family homes, but we recognize Grand Forks has a remarkable assemblage of post-war apartment complexes that, consistent with national trends, were integral to mid-century suburban planning. They not only allowed families to remain within the same subdivision even as their housing needs and expectations changed, but also offered flexible housing for an increasingly mobile post-war population.  

We can also imagine initiatives designed to document the impact of urban renewal efforts and the construction of new roads, bridges, and community infrastructure such as the library and police station. The new features often tell the story of Grand Forks’ ongoing negotiation of priorities between the traditional urban core and new neighborhoods (which embodied new attitudes, expectations, and needs) to the south and west of town. 

Finally, there is a sense of urgency motivating this work. As the city of Grand Forks continues to expand and change, mid-century buildings are increasingly at risk. Just last week, the Grand Forks School District announced that it would close several of the mid-century schools and consolidate their functions. As a result, the fate of these mid-century buildings is unclear as is the distinctly mid-century character of their surrounding neighborhoods. The historically significant South Forks Plaza (now Grand Cities Mall) and other commercial structures along the South Washington Street corridor continue to undergo modification which is both consistent with the adaptability of their mid-century design, but also risks compromising the legibility of their relationship spatially and architecturally with their surrounding neighborhoods. As a recent example, the closure of the Highlander bar (1962) and the very recent removal of its iconic sign has made mid-century streetscape of Grand Forks less visible on this busy thoroughfare and risks obscuring the key role of neighborhood watering holes in maintaining continuity with earlier, pre-automobile, defined social habits.

It goes without saying that the human memories so vital to making the history of mid-century Grand Forks legible and vibrant also continue to diminish with time. We hope that our efforts so far and in the future will preserve both the monuments and the memories of our mid-century community.