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.

Local Knowledge: Housing and the Growth of Grand Forks 1945-1970

Over the last nine months or so, I’ve been slowly pecking away at a report for the Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission that I’m writing with Susan Caraher. Susan did the fieldwork and I’m doing some of the analysis and writing on the project. 

I’ve blogged about some of this before (you can follow the links in this post here), but over the last couple of days, I’ve worked to fold in the results of Susan’s fieldwork (including a number of formally documented homes that are characteristic of the architecture of the city) and a more careful analysis based on our the GIS. Stay tuned for some maps and charts and the like (although I’ve offered drafts of them in earlier posts). 

In any event, this might be mostly of interest only to folks from town here, but I’m moderately happy with how this has turned out so far. 

Here’s the meat our analysis (a more historical and historiographic introduction will precede this section):

The defining characteristic mid-century urban change is suburbanization and the changes to Grand Forks blended together features of interwar urban growth with new expectations and forms of housing informed by national trends. Thus, suburbanization, which was generally understood as a feature of cities with dense urban cores, came to also shape the urban landscape of smaller, less densely built up cities across the US. Like conventional suburbanization, the expansion of Grand Forks was spurred by improvements in transportation especially the widespread purchase of automobiles and the post-war economy which supported new rings of housing around large and mid-sized cities across the US (Jackson 1985; Hayden 2003). The suburbs amplified new ideals of domesticity, intensified interwar consumer culture, refashioned longstanding religious landscapes, and shaped American political life. Modern suburbs both served as a backdrop for mid- and late-20th century culture and instilled values which would become distinct to characterization of the American way of life. The apartment dwelling The Honeymooners (1955-1956), with Ralph Cramden’s persistent threats of domestic violence, gave way to rationalized domesticity of the Brady Brunch (1969-1974). The popular music of the ”garage band” came to challenge the urban sounds of the jazz club, urban concert hall, and Maxwell Street busker. The New Topographics (1975) challenged the views of the American frontier pioneered by Ansel Adams by replacing scenic vistas with the orderly sprawl of suburban homes and the Crabgrass Frontier of Kenneth T. Jackson (1985). Any consideration of mid-century housing in Grand Forks requires a careful review of post-war urban change in the city and a broad reading of suburbanization forms a useful point of departure for this study.

Small cities like Grand Forks experienced suburbanization in slightly different forms from more established cities with dense urban cores and recent scholarship has sought to survey and understand the range of different responses to the proliferation of the post-war suburban ideal (McManus and Ethington 2007, 318). In many areas, the ideal post-war suburb conformed to certain elements of “Garden City” planning with access to green spaces, gently curving streets and limited access in accordance with a series of influential FHA standards published between 1936 and 1941 (Ames and McClelland 2002). In smaller cities like Grand Forks, earlier standards for urban expansion held greater sway owing as much to the limited resources on the part of developers and the community, the smaller size of subdivisions, and even the absence of topographic features that encouraged development designed to accentuate the landscapes. As a result, the plan of Grand Forks’ expansion, particularly to the south of the city showed greater affinities to the style developed by J.C. Nichols for the Country Club District in Kansas City (Ames and McClelland 2002, 37) where city blocks with occasional curving roads formed the basic unit of development. This innovation, most visible south of 15th Avenue S. in Grand Forks, followed the arguments proposed by urban planners such as Clarence Perry in the 1920s and 1930s. Perry’s “neighborhood unit plan” with its emphasis on hierarchically organized roads and arterial routes assigned to the perimeters of neighborhoods, the central place of the school and the peripheral location of shopping and commercial spaces, and reserving space for parks and open spaces had significant influence in practice throughout the development of Grand Forks (Perry 1929). These and similar ways of reimagining the organization of the neighborhood had a profound influence on the shape of the new suburb and an emerging post-war ideal. The relationship between the physical structure and the mid-century community appears most famously William H. Whyte in his widely read book, The Organization Man (1956) where he showed that attention to the arrangement of suburban developments shaped social relationships between neighbors. For example, parties that took place in Park Forest, Illinois tended to attract neighbors across the street from one another as opposed to across backyard fences; friendships were also more likely to occur between next-door neighbors whose driveways were adjacent to one another (Whyte 1956: 330-340). More recently, D.J. Waldie’s Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir (1996) demonstrated how personal narratives, economic motivations, and spiritual experiences became embedded in post-war suburban landscapes where shopping centers, churches, schools, and homes created a new social contexts for American life. In contrast to the self-contained, expansive, and carefully planned suburban spaces considered by Whyte and Waldie, the post-war expansion of Grand Forks remains a hybrid of new suburban influences and established urban patterns. The curved streets with idyllic names remain backed by alleyways even as urban planners during the interwar period recommended against them for aesthetic, cost, and functional reasons.

Thus, the expansion of the city from 1945-1970 followed the existing urban grid and extended along established arteries, but at the same time, pushed against the limits of this plan by introducing curved streets, eliminating intrablock alleyways, and increasing lot sizes. Certain limits provide more intractable, however. The northwestern course of the Red River and the industrial areas surrounding the North Dakota Mill and Elevator contained the northern expansion of the city. To the west, the expansion of the University of North Dakota campus, the Grand Forks municipal airport, and Interstate 29 discouraged expansion in that direction. In contrast, open agricultural land south of town and the existence of arterial roads running parallel to the river which included the Belmont Road which was originally part of the Meridian Highway (later US 81) invited growth. The construction of the Demers overpass and the expansion of Washington Street and Columbia Road facilitated the flow of traffic from downtown and the university district south toward new development. That the Demers overpass and late-1960s urban renewal efforts destroyed residential districts in the Near Southside further marked a shift from the smaller lots and homes of the urban core to larger lots and automobile culture of the south side. This development ultimately prompted the addition of new arterial roads in the city with the 32nd Avenue and Columbia Road becoming major thoroughfares in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Development of any scale south of 32nd Avenue commenced only in the early 21st century.

1945-1950

The earliest post-war housing was largely infilling in established residential areas and this largely followed the pattern of the mid-1920s building boom in the city (Pietsch 1935: 206-208). The Riverside neighborhood expanded to the north with the Baukol’s Subdivision which saw construction as early as 1946. Several of these homes (301 Park Ave. and 302 Park Ave are listed as a contributing property to the Riverside Historic neighborhood as are two nearby homes on North 3rd Street which is part of the Skidmore Addition (1705 and 1715; a modified bungalow and a plain residential home respectively). The homes of the Baukol Subdivision show considerably continuity with development in this area in the 1920s and were predominantly plain residential in style. The founding of Riverside Park in the early 20th century undoubted drew early residents to this neighborhood as the construction of the Riverside Pool by WPA in 1941 attracted families in the post-war period.

A similar form of development which largely followed interwar patterns of urban expansion also occurred between downtown and the University of North Dakota especially along 1st and 2nd avenue in the Decotah Place and Budge and Eshelman’s 3rd Addition subdivisions. Architectural styles are highly varied from each other though the new, modern styles are evident with single-family Ranch, hipped roof box, and Cape Cod all occupying the same street. Since this area was largely infilling lots between established neighborhoods, the lot sizes were modest (around 6500 square feet), and more or less consistent with lot sized in the Riverside neighborhood. One conspicuous feature of several homes in this area is the use of glass block as an architectural feature reminiscent of nearby West Elementary, the only extant nominated mid-century school to use this material (eg: 1715 2nd Ave N (1946); 2602 5th Ave N.(1949); 1501 6th Ave N. (1947)).

South of town likewise saw infilling particularly to the west of Cherry Street and south of 10th Avenue North. The growth of this area anticipated the construction of Lewis and Clarke Elementary School in 1953, Viking Elementary School in 1957, and Edward Sövik’s Calvary Lutheran Church (1962) at the intersection of Cherry and 15th Avenue (Buggen 2015). Letnes’ Subdivision is one of the most significant and sophisticated subdivisions of the 1940s in Grand Forks and shows evidence for creative engagement with urban planning in the shape of 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 house at 812 Letnes and 711 15th Avenue S in the plain residential style is typical of the architecture of this period and subdivision (812 Letnes and 711 15th Avenue S ). Nearly 70% of existing homes from the 1940s in Grand Forks follow variations on the plain residential plan. The Letnes subdivision is distinct, however, for some of the earliest appearance of Ranch/Rambler style homes that would come to dominate Grand Forks housing from the late 1950s to 1970. These homes, the appearance of curved streets, and the absence of alleyways suggesting that the neighborhood followed more progressive design standards that were not seen elsewhere in Grand Forks until the 1960s. The houses in the Letnes Subdivision were mostly over 1100 square feet in size and this make them significant larger than the 950 square foot homes in the Baukol subdivision. The lots were correspondingly larger as well, with the curving streets making the average lot size almost 50% larger than those in Baukol. If the Baukol subdivision continued interwar housing trends in Grand Forks which was appropriate for the largely interwar Riverside neighborhood, the Letnes subdivision clearly anticipated later post-war housing that came to characterize homes on the south side.

The 1950s

Throughout the 1950s, Grand Forks continued to infill lots between the commercial core of the city and the university with the continued growth the neighborhoods between Washington Street and the University, south of Gateway Drive (US Route 2) continuing into the middle years of this decade. This growth prompted the construction of West Elementary, in 1948, and then Valley Junior High School in the mid-1950s. The neighborhoods in this area, the Swangler, Westacott, Westwood, University Place, and three Kelsey Subdivisons surrounding University Park, largely follow the urban grid and lack curved roads or other features associated with suburban trends elsewhere in the city. Correspondingly, the houses are as likely to be hipped roof box style or plain residential as more contemporary ranch/ramblers with various housing styles sometimes alternating on the same street and dating to the same year. This, along with the small lot sizes characteristic of the urban grid (generally under 6500 square feet) correspondingly smaller homes (which continue to be average around 1050 square feet), ensured that these neighborhoods maintained their interwar form even as more mid-century modern architecture appeared in their midst.

There were some exceptions, however, such as Columbia Court, a u-shaped road that abuts the northwest corner of West Elementary grounds. This small u-shaped street is the width of one residential block. A Neighborhood Watch sign is prominently displayed as one enters the quiet street that gives a sense of a group of residents who are familiar with one another. It featured a more consistent lineup of ranch/ramblers including a one built in 1957 with low pitched roof, overhanging eaves and a recessed entrance that invoked mid-century modern styling cues (157 Columbia Court). The neighborhood also maintained the presence of north-south running alley ways, but the lots here were generally larger than elsewhere in Swangler’s Subdivision average over 7300 square feet in size and with larger homes of over 1100 square feet.

A more common approach to the limitations of the urban grid occurred in the earliest subdivisions established to the west of Washington Street and south of Demers. Despite the neatly organized grid of homes, the names of at least one subdivisions in this area evoked bucolic images of suburban idyl and the concept of the Garden City: Garden Home Addition. The mid-1950s saw the development of the area south of Demers and west of the emerging commercial corridor of Washington Street which provided these homes convenient access to retail establishments, restaurants, and businesses including the town’s first shopping centers. These new commercial buildings were set back from Washington Street and were fronted by large parking lots designed to accommodate customers who used the new arterial roads of Washington Street and Demers to move from their homes to work, shopping, school, and other activities throughout the city. These neighborhoods would continue to see new construction from the mid-1950s and through the 1960s and remain one of the best-preserved area of mid-century modern housing in Grand Forks.

East of Washington and south of 15th Avenue several new subdivisions appeared which engaged the urban grid of Grand Forks in more create ways by incorporating the curving streets anticipated by the Letnes Subdivision in the 1940s. Chestnut Street swoops south of 15th and provides access to a group of homes set into the center of the block (of which only a few survive from the 1997 flood). The home at 1521 Chestnut St is among the earliest to Grand Forks to adopt the fashionable “prairie contemporary” style and stands on a large (18,000 square foot) lot. Immediately to the west of this stretch of Chestnut is the contemporary Robertson Subdivision which combined a gently curving road and a cul-de-sac, which is the quintessential form of suburban planning and allowed for larger lots. The sinuous shape of Campbell Drive that connects Cherry Street and Chestnut between the 17th and Park Avenue in the Hvidston Subdivision likewise allowed for three, open, fan-shaped lots on the outside of a curve. It may be that these large lots were harder to develop and they served as a baseball field for nearly a decade before being filled in with homes in the mid-1960s. The Hvidston subdivision featured the largest concentration of prairie contemporary houses in the city clustered along Campbell Drive and along Chestnut (e.g. 501 17th Avenue South, but was otherwise dominated by Ranch/Ramblers which by the mid-1950s had become the most common form of domestic architecture (e.g. 501 17th Avenue South). As significantly, this neighborhood featured more attached garages than elsewhere in town. Accessed by driveways extending from the front of the houses, the front facing, attached garage made the alley way that continued to run behind the house redundant. It also emphasized a design focused on the modern amenities and convenience of burgeoning car culture. Unsurprisingly houses in plain residential and Cape Cod style popular in the interwar years are largely absent in these fashionable mid-century neighborhoods. Simpler homes tended used the hipped roof box which became more frequently throughout Grand Forks during this decade (e.g. 17th Ave. South, 1015 Letnes).

Between Cherry Street and Washington, the urban grid remained largely intact and the area developed with slightly smaller homes and smaller lots through the 1950s. Most homes were in ranch/rambler styles. A number of prairie contemporary houses appear in these neighborhoods as well almost always with attached garages (e.g. 1502 10th St. South). The appearance of multifamily homes in these neighborhoods in the 1950s deserves more attention, but suggests that these areas offered more affordable housing.

The 1960s

The 1960s witnessed both more adventurous development of the urban grid and, perhaps ironically, more consistent architectural styles. The late 1950s and early 1960s saw the development of Olson’s addition east of Belmont Avenue which featured large lots which averaged over 16,000 square feet set along curving roads that suggested the shape of the Red River. Park land near the river offered opportunities for recreation and mitigated, to some extent, the risk of flooding which after the 1997 flood required the installation of the flood wall and the removal of some homes. To the east of Belmont Avenue the White Clover and Sunset Acres Subdivisions with curving roads complicated the urban grid with bucolically named streets like Olive and Clover Drive. On 32nd Avenue between Cherry St. and Washington, Schroeder Junior High opened in 1961 in anticipation of Grand Forks’s southern growth and, next door, Kelly Elementary opened in 1966 to serve these communities. On the northeastern corner of the block, the new building of the local Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints opened its doors in 1966. Unlike Schroeder, designed by Wells-Denbrook, this modern church followed the Adams 1 (AD 61-577) plan developed my the central Mormon Church committee which was thoroughly modern in form and could be easily expanded to accommodate a growing congregation (Jackson 2003, 270). The lots in this area were large (averaging 10,500 square feet) and the homes were over 1200 square feet marking a significant increase in size from the 1000 square foot homes of the immediate post-war decade.

To the west of Washington Street, the second level of development occurred south of 17th street and south of 11th avenue with the large Burke’s Home Addition anchored to the north by Ben Franklin Elementary which was opened in 1960 and Red River High School in 1967. The most significant mid-century addition to this area, however, was North Dakota’s first indoor shopping mall, South Forks Plaza (now Grand Cities Mall) in 1964. Designed by the firm of DeRemer, Harrie and Kennedy, which also designed Ben Franklin Elementary, Holy Family Church and School (1961) just east of Washington, and Lewis and Clarke Elementary (1952/3) several blocks to the north, it included a K-Mart and a Sears store and a modular design that allowed the K-Mart to open before the mall was even complete. To the west of the mall, the Valley Park subdivision, built slightly before the mall, consisted of two u-shaped streets, Willow and Drees, that were not through roads. The lots here while smaller than east of Washington Street featured homes of 1100 square feet in contemporary, albeit ubiquitous, ranch/rambler styles. The subdivision included walking paths connecting it to the mall and the burgeoning Washington Street commercial and retail corridor. The balance between the design which limited through traffic and the convenience of walking paths to retail shops embodied many of the key design elements of mid-century suburban design. The u-shape of these streets contributed to a sense of close community and neighborliness with homes oriented toward each other and traffic tends to be more local.

The architecture of neighborhoods from the 1960s was almost entirely ranch/ramblers of various designs. By the mid-1960s all other forms of domestic architecture had effectively disappeared including prairie contemporary that had enjoyed some popularity in more affluent neighborhoods in the 1950s and early 1960s. By the 1960s, the overwhelming number of homes in Grand Forks had attached garages signaling the full arrival of automobile culture. Lots were larger and the square footage of homes also continued its steady increase with the average home exceeding 1200 square feet. As alleys began to disappear, driveways from the street front become a dominant feature of streetscapes. Many Additions in Grand Forks reflect the characteristics of nationally documented developments described in Barbara Miller Lane’s Houses for a New World: Builders and Buyers in American Suburbs 1945-1965 (2015) and D.J. Waldie’s Holy Land (ref) with repetitive linear arrangements of lawn, driveway, and walkway and so on for the length of each residential block. Such a characteristic mid-century streetscape appears on Walnut Street between 28th Avenue S. and 32nd Avenue S (Fig. xx). A planted tree stands on the berm in front of each house, and those houses tend to be situated the same distance from the sidewalk as their neighbor. As homes were built closer to the sidewalk and alleys no longer bisected the block, backyards increase in size. As xxxx notes in his reflection of his childhood home, building houses closer to the street had a practical and fiscal benefit for a developer with the shortening of distance for utilities and construction such as driveways. Neighborhoods around the country were being built at a fast pace, so cost- and time-saving measures were adopted by developers.

What are things like at the University of North Dakota?

It now seems there are a few new questions in nearly every conversation: Are you online or face-to-face? How are [COVID related] things there [on your campus]? How is your institution handling things? Will you come back after Thanksgiving? What is your institution’s plan for the spring? How many cases?

Since this seems to be a topic of significant interest, I thought that I’d give a little review of what’s happening at UND.

First, our COVID numbers are really good. This morning, the UND COVID dashboard tells me that we have about 44 self-reported cases (39 are students) in the campus community. This is down from over 400 in late August. We seem to be averaging around (and, yeah, I’m too lazy to run the numbers) 5 new cases a day over the last few weeks and at present have 52 people in quarantine or isolation at local hotels. 

We also test about 3 days a week and judging by the numbers, these tests are attended and convenient.   

Second, it would appear that UND’s numbers are not major factor in the number of cases in Grand Forks County. In other words, the influx of college students do not seem to be aa major influence on number of COVID cases in town. I suspect that UND’s aggressive testing, mask policies, contact tracing, and capacity to quarantine and isolate both infected and exposed students has helped stem the kind of rapidly spreading outbreak that many folks feared. UND has averaged 5.3 new cases per day over the last 7 days while Grand Forks has averaged close to 25 new cases per day.

These numbers are less comparable if they’re not normalized per, say, 100,000 or whatever. Unfortunately, I don’t know the total size of the the UND population (students, faculty, and staff) to normalize that number. More than that the Grand Forks dashboard seems to offer average number of cases per 100,000 which is not something that I can easily compare to data from UND’s dashboard which shows NEW cases per day because it’s not clear how many individuals have recovered. In any event, this kind of fuzziness is understandable because the two dashboard have different goals. The county’s dashboard is trying to understand the number of active COVID cases to get a sense for the potential spread of COVID whereas the UND dashboard is concerned about the rate of its spread.

Third, I continue to teach face-to-face and have a new appreciation for being in the classroom. My classes however, have been impacted by COVIDs. Not only have some of my students been isolated or quarantined for various lengths of time, but my larger class (45 students) is being taught as a hybrid course. I meet once a week for about 40 minutes with 3 groups of 15 students. The rest of the class takes place online.

In my experience students have been incredibly conscientious about mask wearing and social distancing. I’ve felt no need to police university COVID policies in my classes and students seem respectful of both their own personal space and that of their fellow students.

That being said, I think some discontinuities in the digital environment have made seamless communication between students and faculty a bit more challenging than I expected. Students tend to prefer Snapchat and group texts to communicate, whereas my official correspondence remains confined to Blackboard and email (and frankly, I don’t want to be on a student Snapchat or group text chain!).

That being said, I’m excited to participate in a program funded, I suspect, by CARES money, designed to help us develop more effective hybrid classes moving forward.

I’ve also discovered that with all the uncertainty students (and I suspect colleagues as well!) constantly waver back and forth between the desire for structure – due dates, regular class meetings, clear expectations – and flexibility. Trying to strike that balance will continue to be a challenge for me especially since I tend toward a very flexible approach to teaching and expectations.

Finally, our community has not enforced a mask mandate and has generally done little officially to manage the spread of COVID. That being said (and I know there are those who will disagree with me), most of the people I see out and about wear masks and social distance. I suspect more people stay home than feel a need to go out to socialize. And I think that there is a strong sense that we’re all in this together that connects town and gown. 

The numbers in North Dakota have received national attention for their continued rise even as other states have made serious strides in controlling the spread of COVID. In our community, I remain guardedly optimistic that the combination of thoughtful policies by UND and a strong sense of cohesion among residents in Grand Forks county will prevent major spikes. If we can make it into the cooler months of the winter when socialize naturally slows down and isolation becomes a normal state for much of the community, we might be spared the worst of the COVID surge. Only time will tell.