A New Memorial Union at UND

I was pretty interested in the recent vote to fund the construction of a new Memorial Union on the campus of the University of North Dakota. By a fairly narrow margin, students agreed to fund a new union through a $14 per credit fee that increased 2% per year between 2020 and 2059. The new union, it’s been said, will cost about $80 million and the incentive to do this now is that the existing union, aside from being dated in style and design as well as increasingly inadequate as a center for student life, has about $40 million in “deferred maintenance.” Traditionally, students have carried part of the funding for the union and its maintenance through various fees and had a fair amount of control over how the union worked and funding priorities.

The fee increase has to go through the state legislature and the state board of higher education, and there is some concern that a fee increase to fund the new union will make it more difficult to increase fees for other needs on campus should they arise over the next 40 years (gulp!!). As a result, some legislators with ties to UND have asked around a bit to get a sense whether this is a good priority for UND and whether it should see backing in the legislature.

Because I’ve been thinking a bit about how university budgets work in the age of shifting priorities, I chimed in and my response to a social media post has been banging around in my head for a week or so now. So, I thought I would share a revised version of it here.

First, the more that I thought about it, the more that I’ve come to think that the $40 million in deferred maintenance is a bit of a McGuffin. From what I understand, the formulas used to calculate deferred maintenance are not as simple as saying there are $40 million worth of things needing to be fixed in the existing union. These figures include depreciation and replacement costs that accumulate over time, and, generally, represent the amount of money that needs to be available to accommodate repair and replacement of the physical plant of the building. A new roof, for example, will start to generate deferred maintenance expenses from the moment it is installed as well an HVAC unit or a light bulb. Ideally, the university would start to save money to replace the roof from the moment that the roof is installed, but this is neither realistic or practical.

Of course, if UND spent $40 million, it would reset the deferred maintenance “clock” to zero in the same way that replacing the oil in your car every morning would reset part of your car’s deferred maintenance bill. But this isn’t necessary a rational decision. One of the Wesley College buildings, Sayre Hall, still had the original wood-framed windows from the early 20th century. These would have been racking up deferred maintenances expenses for nearly a century (if we assume a window is designed to last 20 years), but they were never replaced. It stands to reason that, in general, larger, more complex, and more expensive buildings generate deferred maintenance costs more quickly than small ones. I also suspect that the rate of increased for deferred maintenance trails off as buildings get older. In other words, building a new union will only defer (heh heh) the rate of increase for deferred maintenance for a little while before it begins too accumulate again and every bit as quickly (and perhaps even MORE quickly in some nightmarish scenarios) as the old union does.

More than that, if the issue is that the university doesn’t have sufficient saved funds to cover future maintenance on campus, then building a new building will neither make this better or worse. Eliminating deferred maintenance expenses on the two old Wesley College buildings didn’t “save” the university money, it just eliminated potential future expenses. But more to the point, he entire system of budgets on campus create deferred maintenance expenses because saved money is frequently seen by both administrators and the legislature as surplus capital that isn’t being used productively and an example of inefficiency at a public institution to be “punished” by austerity. In fact, the entire federal grant system now works along these lines with less and less money provided to pay for the maintenance and depreciation (indirect costs) of the original investment (direct costs).

In other words, talking about deferred maintenance as a reason to build a building isn’t the language of fiscal responsibility, but the language of austerity. The language of deferred maintenance is meant to make the university look like an irresponsible institution (whether this is the case or not) and often results in funding cuts purported to enforce more efficient operation, but actually designed to penalize public institutions (and to case-build for privatization). For example, the legislature has proposed several times to make resources available but only if a significant part of the funds would go toward deferred maintenance. Covering deferred maintenance costs on campus isn’t always or eve often responsible thing to do. It hurts students.

That being said, there are two compelling reasons – at least to me – for approving the students’ request for funding a new union. 

First, there has been a good bit of talk about the union attracting new students as well as  vague statements that the union is the “heart” or the “core” of the campus. I don’t disagree with either of these things, but I wonder whether they’re overly narrow. To be clear, I’ll admit to finding NDSU’s union building very attractive and functional. I also have had the privilege of traveling to other campuses quite regularly over the past few years and, in comparison UND’s union, is both limited and outdated.

As an aside, this one of my favorite hallways on campus (it’s not technically in the Union, but rather in Swanson Hall, but is more or less in the Union complex):

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Despite this hallway and the appeal of the union to prospective students and visitors, it isn’t really the best argument. What is more compelling to me is the growing awareness that campus buildings play an important role in the coherence of the campus community and this plays a role in academic performance and retention of students. Like many state schools, UND attracts students from a wide range of backgrounds. The presence of spaces on campus that encourage students to socialize and interact is particularly important at a school like ours not because our “posh” or privileged students expect it, but because having appealing and functional spaces on campus levels the playing filed for our diverse student body. This is part of the mission of public universities and something that a well designed campus should accomplish.

We know, for example, that first generation students, minorities, and students from less advantaged backgrounds often struggle to integrate into the campus community and this has an impact on academic performance. They tend to study alone more, they tend to find campus to be an alienating place, and they tend to see their academic work as more separate from their “real life.” With the growth of private dormitories and the continued strength of fraternities and sororities, historically disadvantaged students also have fewer spaces to interact with other students outside the classroom. If they do look to the union as a common space, it’s dingy and spent vibe tends to reinforce these students’ position as marginal. Conversely, an updated and appealing union may well expand the impact of what faculty and students do in the classroom by creating inclusive spaces for informal interaction and to eliminate – for the time being, at least – a real dichotomy of opportunity across our diverse student body. In short, this is not a building that is being built instead of things that would improve academic life on campus is a false dichotomy.

Second, voting “no” on the new union will continue a policy of austerity that involves the withholding of funds – or even support for policies – that do not adhere to a top down strategic vision implemented by legislators, administrators, alumni, and various other stakeholders on campus. This situation and initiative reminds the bosses that students ARE stakeholders, and they have every bit as much the right to shape campus in a respectful and deliberate way as the legislature, the administration, or the faculty. In fact, while I don’t necessarily agree with building of a new union per se, I’d go to the wall to protect students’ rights to raise the funds to build a union. If the state isn’t going to support the university system in a reasonable way, then they lose the right to tell students not to take matters into their own hands.

In the spring of 2018, I taught a class on the UND budget and what was clear was that students DO have strong opinions about the current fiscal situation on campus and do have priorities that administrators, faculty, and legislatures doesn’t always recognize. More than that, they want a voice. This is their voice. And the argument that “only” 2400 students participated and “only” 1300 students wanted the union speaks more to a condescending attitude toward students than a legitimate concern. Over my time at UND, the last 15 years, far less representative groups have raised fees on students or made decisions that directly impact the quality of education and experience. The decision, for example, to eliminate music therapy was made by one administrator. When my class pressed senior administrators to explain the cuts to baseball and Women’s Hockey, their responses were evasive and guarded. It was clear that students were not only uninvolved in these decisions, but would not always be given access to the processes that produced these decisions. In general, student input on most matters of campus policy, curriculum, and administration is often limited to one or two students on committees, at best. That 1000+ plus students made their voices heard in a relatively transparent way through this vote is enough for me to support them.

Veterans Day, the Great War, and Free Speech

It’s Veterans Day and we’re also recognizing the 100th anniversary of the Great War.

In keeping with this, I figured I should send you along to the North Dakota Quarterly page to check out the first volume in our Reprint Series: The University of North Dakota and the Great War. It features articles from 1916, 1917, and 1919 including Wesley R. Johnson’s remarkable “War Experience of a University Student as a Dough Boy” published in 1919.

Und and the great war

To this remarkable account, we can add the results of some research by a University of North Dakota student, Sawyer Flynn, who transcribed a pair of remarkable poems written by Horace Shidler to honor his fallen friend Harold Holden Sayre. These poems were discovered during the Wesley College Documentation Project as Sayre’s father donated Sayre Hall to Wesley College (and later renamed the hall in memory of his late son).

The poems and Sawyer’s research speak for themselves.  

Finally, if you’re in Grand Forks, come down to Half Brothers Brewing from 6-8 pm to an event hosted by UND’s Center for Human Rights and Genocide Studies. Tonights event is titled Sports, Speech, and Justice: A Community Conversation. It features Eric Burin and a panel of luminaries pulled from the pages of his latest edited volume, Protesting on Bended Knee: Race, Dissent, and Patriotism in 21st Century America. More importantly, it provides a space for a conversation about free speech, justice, and patriotism in 21st century America, and this feels like a good way to recognize the sacrifices of veterans.

Be sure to check out Jason Reid’s feature article on African American Veterans over at the Undefeated which quotes Eric’s book!

The Joy of Voting

There’s a lot going on over the next month at The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. If you want to be in the loop follow The Digital Press on Twitter

This week, the Digital Press kicked off a collaborative project with Dr. Eric Burin in the Department of History at the University of North Dakota and Citizens University, a non profit leader in civic engagement. The project is called The Joy of Voting and it looks to “reinvigorate a culture of voting” or at least remind the public that voting can be a joyous experience. Grand Forks, North Dakota is one of four cities in the U.S. with a Joy of Voting program along with Akron, Charlotte, and West Palm Beach

The Digital Press is working on only one little aspect of the Joy of Voting project in Grand Forks, which focuses on soliciting and publishing online memories of how voting was a joyful experience. Check it out here:

Joy of voting grand forks e28093 2018 10 09 13 54 58

The Joy of Voting website and Facebook page will be updated daily with a new memory of voting as a joyful experience. Depending on the response to the page, we might put together a little digital book celebrating voting in Grand Forks.     

First Snow

Sometimes the first snow happens at night and that makes everything a bit challenging to photograph and post.

In keeping with tradition, here’s a photo of the first snow this year.

I’ve posted a photo of the first snow (or what I considered the first snow…) pretty regularly since 2007. Here they are: 2017 (October 26)2016 (November 22)2015 (Nov. 5), 2014 (Nov. 8),  2013 (Oct. 20), 2012 (Oct. 4), 2011 (Nov. 10), 2010 (Nov. 21), 2008 (Oct. 28), and in 2007 (Sept. 11).

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On Bump Outs, Logistics, and Citizenship

Recently, there’s been a pretty interesting debate in my little town on bump outs. Bump outs are a form of curb extension generally designed to protect pedestrians crossing busy streets by narrowing the road and slowing traffic at intersections. The Grand Forks City Council has installed a few temporary bump outs in downtown Grand Forks on an experimental basis and, as one might expect, they have attracted both positive and negative comment. 

What’s been particularly interesting to me is that the conversation around bump outs has tended to pit perceived “liberals,” who are in favor of the bump outs because, it would seem, they cost money and liberals tend to favor public spending against conservatives who are skeptical of public spending especially on things that smell a bit of the nanny state and might inconvenience the flow of private vehicle traffic through the city. 

This juxtaposition in a curious one. After all, the so-called liberal position has little to do with some uncontrolled need to spend public funds, and almost everything to do with the desire to improve downtown Grand Forks. In fact, since, as far as I know, Grand Forks doesn’t have a problem with pedestrian injuries, the bump outs are not even explicitly designed to solve a problem, but to demonstrate care or concern for producing a walkable city. The desire to produce a walkable downtown is not exactly a neutral thing. At its best, it demonstrates an interest in reducing our dependence on motor vehicles and fossil fuels, producing a higher density and, as a result, more efficient and cost-effective living space, and building a stronger sense of community through increasing the opportunities for interaction between neighbors and residents. At its worse, it reflects an investment in urban property values by building an appealing mixed-use downtown that is attractive to private investors and susceptible to gentrification.

Downtown Grand Forks is developing rapidly with new housing being built, new businesses being started in existing buildings, and new offices. The private concerns who have invested in these properties see a good partner in the city government who is willing to commit public funds to increase the value of their investments (and, inasmuch as these things are related, the quality of life for folks living and working downtown). The interest in bump outs is consistent with the recent willingness to sell downtown “pocket parks” to private investors for development. The desire to partner with private investors to increase urban density downtown is a rather direct example of using public funds to bolster the private sector. It is hardly surprising the most politically powerful developer in the U.S. made investment in infrastructure a key talking point in his campaign. Developers love infrastructure because it builds value for their portfolios. New urbanists also love infrastructure investments because higher density, high value development is a more efficient way to produce tax revenue for communities because infrastructure costs per resident (and per physical footprint) are lower in high density downtowns than in suburban sprawl. The more revenue the high density urban center can produce, the lower the taxes for everyone in the community.

It is ironic that bump outs appear to be some liberal ploy to spend public money “willy nilly” when, in fact, they’re part of a pretty well-established strategy to use public funds to support private investment. Moreover, the kind of high density downtown favored by hipster new urbanists also supports lower taxes for suburban libertarians who prefer the freedom of more dispersed settlement closer to city limits.  

Some of the folks who opposed the bump outs are equally interesting to me. I’m not particularly interested in folks who just oppose everything (and this is a rather popular political position in any small town, I think). After all, it’s easier to object than the plan. 

The more intriguing argument concerning bump outs is that they will disrupt the flow of traffic through downtown. This brings me to my recent interest in logistics. A number of authors have noted that the late-20th century expansion of the global supply chain has changed the nature of urbanism and citizenship in key ways. For some, this involves the emergence of “supply chain citizenship” which involves a sense of loyalty to a series of economic relationships mediated by transnational corporations. In many cases, this involves buying a particular product because it is produced in an ethical way (think: free trade coffee), but this can also involve supporting corporate interests in one’s community even when they run counter to the traditional government institutions. In the latter case, this reflects both a skepticism toward the role of government which is seen as either corrupt, incompetent, or fundamentally opposed to the free functioning of markets and the growth of wealth, and a greater confidence the interest and ability of a private concerns to care for its workers and communities. In a 21st-century twist on company towns, supply chain citizenship reflects a willingness to contribute to global corporate well being imagining that the rising tide of corporate profits will lift all ships or, at very least, that a sense of shared responsibility for corporate profits (or ethical behavior) will be recognized and reciprocated across the supply chain. 

A version of this kind of supply chain loyalty manifests itself in the willingness of citizens to support the often questionable practices of oil companies in the Bakken oil patch against the interests of the state or federal government. While the long term benefits of extractive industry to the state or traditional communities is difficult to identify, understand, or quantify, it appears to some that the oil industry might be a better and more loyal representative of local interests than, say, the state government. In effect, the oil industry attracts a greater sense of confidence and loyalty than the state. This is a particularly useful phenomenon for transnational corporations whose values, operating culture, and profits rarely align neatly with the vast number of traditional public interest along their global supply chains. Substituting corporate citizenship for traditional citizenship is just good business especially as logistically demanding operations like oil production necessarily involve work that cuts across numerous public jurisdictions. 

Returning to bump outs and logistics on the local level, the most compelling argument against bump outs is that they will disrupt the flow of traffic through the city. While Grand Forks can be busy, it is largely busy in a small town way, but the relatively easy flow of traffic through the community should not disguise the role of Grand Forks in larger supply chains. Grand Forks, like all cities, is a “logistic city.” Situated at the intersection of US Route 2 and the Meridian Highway (now, US 81 and Interstate 29), home to the largest flour mill in the U.S., and a stop along the Great Northern Railway’s “Hi-Line” connecting Minneapolis to Spokane and served by the Empire Builder, Grand Forks always stood as a node in the continental flow of goods. In other words, the origins of Grand Forks has always asked its residents to think globally about the function of their city. The flow of traffic through Grand Forks fortified the city’s existence and played a role in its development as a regional hub with banks, municipal services, transportation facilities, a university and hospitals.

At the same time, the needs of traffic flowing through Grand Forks continues to challenge local residents. In my sleepy neighborhood, for example, the movement of cars heading east and west across the Point Bridge over the Red River has prompted calls for traffic calming measures to reduce or slow the flow of traffic. In downtown Grand Forks, there are those who see bump outs as a threat to the movement of sugar beet trucks during the annual beet campaign. While there is little doubt that the sugar beet industry brings revenue to the city and the region, the ease of movement through downtown Grand Forks has about as much impact on the global sugar industry as similar logistic issues have on the price of oil from the Bakken. The existence of bump outs in downtown has only a rather small impact on the functioning of the sugar beet campaign and on the global sugar industry. Changes in tariffs on sugar, global markets conditions, and even the climate have a much greater impact on the fate of our local beet farmers than bump outs. In other words, the local impact of bump outs on the role of Grand Forks as a logistic city is minor.

At the same time, the battle over bump outs does pit the two views of citizenship at odd with each other. Those in favor of bump outs see their highest priority as developing the wealth of local property owners both directly through a vital and deliberately planned downtown and indirectly through the impact of these improvements on the local tax base. Those opposed (notwithstanding those opposed to everything) privilege the flow of goods and commerce and traffic through the city as a responsibility for communities situated along the global supply chain irrespective of direct local benefits. In sum, being good citizens of a global supply chain trumps being good citizens in a local community.

As our lives become increasingly entangled in the transnational web of logistics expect these competing forms of citizenship to challenge our loyalties more and more frequently. 

Sixty Years of Boom and Bust: The Impact of Oil in North Dakota, 1958–2018

Over the last year, I’ve been whispering about this project a bit. Kyle Conway is editing an updated version of The Williston Report: The Impact of Oil on the Williston Area of North Dakota (1958), and The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota will republish both original report and an updated slate of essays. The updated version will be titled Sixty Years of Boom and Bust The Impact of Oil in North Dakota, 1958–2018, and it will become a contributing volume to the Bakken Bookshelf and sit nice alongside The Bakken Goes Boom: Oil and the Changing Geographies of Western North Dakota (2016). 

Campbell et al 1958 dragged

If you’re interested in the original report, which anyone interested in North Dakota history should read. There’s a digital copy of the book available from The Digital Press’s page on the Internet Archive here (and if you’re interested in a paper copy one is available from Re-Ink Books in Delhi, India). 

Kyle Conway has sent me a little peek at the table of contents for the new version of the book. It looks fantastic:


1. Introduction: Sixty Years of Boom and Bust (2018), by Kyle Conway
2. Introduction and Summary (1958), by Bernt L. Wills, Ross B. Talbot, Samuel C. Kelley, Jr., and Robert B. Campbell

3. Physical Attributes of the Area (1958), by Bernt L. Wills
4. The Geographic Setting of the Bakken Oil Shale Play (2018), by Bradley C. Rundquist and Gregory S. Vandeberg 

5. Political Impact (1958), by Ross B. Talbot
6. Political Impacts (2018), by Andrea Olive

7. The Economic Impact of Oil Development (1958), by Samuel C. Kelley, Jr.
8. The Economic Consequences of Oil Development (2018), by David Flynn

9. Social Change in the Basin (1958), by Robert B. Campbell
10. Social Impacts of Oil Development (2018), by Rick Ruddell and Heather Ray
11. Making Home in the Bakken Oil Patch (2018), by William Caraher and Bret Weber
12. Drinking, Drugs, and Long Waits: Community Members’ Perceptions of Living in a North Dakotan Boomtown (2018), by Karin L. Becker
13. Boomtown Bias: Reflections on the Past, Present, and Future of North Dakota’s Commercial Sex Laws (2018), by Nikki Berg Burin

Appendix A: Methodology Note (1958)
Appendix B: Supplementary Tables (1958)

Kyle has also been playing around with the cover and grabbed a great photograph of Williston on his last visit to the area.


Ideally the book will drop toward the end of this year, but we’re probably dealing with the “long 2018” for this volume with an early 2019 publication date, but judging by the table of contents, I’m pretty sure that this book will be worth the wait.

Small Town Archaeology

This weekend, Bret Weber, Eric Burin, and I conducted a little backyard archaeology. Actually, we helped Bret build a “French Drain” between his garage and his alley in Grand Forks, North Dakota. It happens that the garage is lower than the surrounding alleys meaning that water flowed down into his garage during heavy rains.

Our solution to the problem was partly inspired by my work over the past few years at the South Basilica at Polis Chrysochous on Cyprus. This church was built across a natural drainage, on the slope of a hill that runs from the city to the coastal plain. As a result, the church must have constantly endured erosional problems particularly on its south wall which stood perpendicular the the flow of water down the drainage. The presence of a road upslope from the basilica did little to slow the flow of water to the south wall of the church. I have argued that the first basilica failed, in part, because of the struggle to manage this flow of water which likely ran down the slope, across an open courtyard and down the foundation trench of the basilica. The large scale reconstruction of the building in the late 7th (or early 8th) century involved the installation of a large rubble filled pit to the south of the church which would slow the flow of water and allow it to dissipate without pooling against the vulnerable church wall. We sketched out this argument here and will publish it in greater detail this winter.

The plan for Brett’s house was to build a drain along the south, alley side, of his garage that would catch the surface run off before it entered and pooled in his garage. This involved digging a trench and a reservoir with … a mini backhoe and filling this excavated area with cobble and gravel (and maybe drain tile).

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We did not dig this trench in a stratigraphic way nor did we sieve or carefully examine the material from the trench itself. That being said, the trench did reveal some interesting stratigraphy and some interesting objects, that I’ll post here in a future post.

The upper most level of the trench, the surface, was the packed gravel the is the common road surface for most alleys in Grand Forks. This layer was approximately 2 or 3 inches. Since we excavated on Bret’s property rather than in the alleyway, it seems likely that this level was part of the spill from the alley surface carried toward Bret’s garage by the flow of water, rather than the surface itself which I would imagine to be a good bit thicker. Below that was a layer of what appears to be soil that is about 4 or 5 inches in depth. Like the gravel surface in this area, I assume that this is slope wash.

Beneath this level, however, was 3-4 inch think level of black, charred material which included chunks of coal and what appears to be charcoal. This level appeared after scraping back the top levels as a couple of small patches:     

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But as our excavation continued it became clear that this was a level that extended for the entire length of the garage, 50 ft or so. It included many small pieces of window glass, table ware, bottles, as well as other material that suggests domestic discard. It was heavy, black, and burnt. The black level is visible in the photo below.

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Bret’s four-car garage was likely built in the 1940s or 1950s, but a smaller garage, probably an carriage house, existed on its footprint as early as 1897 according to Sanborn Maps for the neighborhood. This heavy burnt and coal-laced layer appears a bit deeper on the east side of the trench than on the west, but we didn’t measure it. The garage is evidence that an alley existed behind the house as early as the 1890s when this block (the Renkells Addition) first appears on the Sanborn Maps. Bret’s house is probably a few years earlier than that, and it may be noted on the Sanborn map from 1884 as one of the “5 dwgs, 2 barns.” 

On the western side of the trench, we excavated four foot deep reservoir. This revealed a 9 inch deep layer of soil below the burnt and coal. I would assume that this level represented a flood deposition at some point in the property’s history but it was below the level of the current garage so it likely pre-dated 1950s (perhaps it can be associated with the flood of 1897). Below it was a very clear, 2 inch thick surface of sand and clay. It’s visible as a light level in the photo below.

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I’m guessing that this was an early road or alley surface in the area, but without digging more, I am not entirely sure. Our rather careless backhoe excavation of this pit made it hard to isolate any particular context; moreover, there was a metal anchor of a “guy-wire” which presumably supported a now removed utility pole in the area. It was anchored below the sand and clay surface which suggested either that the surface was compromised by the installation of the anchor or that this anchor was associated with this level. 

The burnt, black coal level is baffling to me. It looks like the debris from a coal bin or the cleaning out of a furnace. Perhaps the unburned coal, clinkers, and ash were dumped in the alley way along with other household trash and over time developed into this substantial deposit. Are there parallels for this elsewhere? 


Alone Together in a Small Town

I’m messing around with a series of little “small town vignettes” for theNorth Dakota Quarterly blog. I post them first here as kind of works in progress. This is the start of thenext one. If you want something a bit more substantive to chew on during the Frog Days of summer, check out Will Jensen’s story, “A Quiet Place to Hide”over at NDQ. It was recognized in the 2017 Best American Mystery Stories, so we made it available on our blog.

In the summer months, I spend a part of my week on the lovely Grand Forks Greenway system in my hometown of Grand Forks, North Dakota. The walking and cycling paths of the greenway run for some dozen miles along the Red River of the North adjacent to downtown and various neighborhoods in town. On a good day, I can see some deer, a prairie dog or two, a few little frogs, and maybe one of the bald eagles who lives in the area. They all go about their business without paying much attention to me and I try to let them do their hoping, prancing, sniffing, and gliding without much interruption.

Grand Forks is a small town but it’s not as small as some towns, though. It’s the local county seat and market center with a big hospital, lots of banks, two malls (although one has a church as an anchor store), and a bustling little downtown with restaurants, bars, a couple breweries, and a gun shop. We have a daily paper that still publishes on paper most days per week. We know our neighbors, but not so well that we’re up in their business, but well enough to know their names and to know people who know them. My feeling is that in smaller towns or villages, people tend to know their neighbors better. In larger cities, where you have genuine suburbs, people enjoy not to know their neighbors at all. 

When I exercise on the greenway, I tend to do it by myself. Maybe this comes from years of swimming when despite being what my parents called a “social swimmer,” you are forced to be alone with the water, your strokes, and thoughts. As I ride my bike or jog along the greenway, I see other people exercising on their own or in pairs and I almost always say “hi” or “hello” or whatever. The responses tend to be quite muted. A few will respond with a cautious “hi,” but most folks just ignore it completely. At first, this struck me as a bit odd, but I chalked it up to people listening to music, distracted by their own work outs, or just not expecting someone to say “hello.” After a while, though, I noticed that people I knew also didn’t respond to my greeting.

This has got me thinking a good bit of Sherry Turkle’s 2011 book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (London 2011). The book describes the relationship between technology mediated relationship and the growing sense of alienation in the modern world. I wonder how many of the people who pass by without acknowledging my gesture or turn their head to the side to avoid any possible interaction are deeply invested in a podcast, their workout playlist, or some other distraction being piped directly into their earhole. On the other hand, I suspect that many folks who I pass are not so much distracted themselves, but assume a kind of mutual distraction while moving along the public paths on the greenway. They might tilt their head away to avoid that disappointment of reaching out for a moment of recognition only to find the blank stare in return.





The End of Wesley College

The final demolition of the four Wesley College buildings starts today on the campus of the University of North Dakota. I’m pretty bummed to think that next time I’ll be on campus, those buildings won’t be there. As readers of this blog know, I’ve been working in and around those buildings for a few months and have compiled an intriguing and, I think, compelling archive that documents their place on campus.

On the other hand, I do think that I did my part to document and preserve them, and I am still intrigued that there is more that I can do in the fall when I return to campus through documentary records, interviews, and compiling the vast store of data that we collected.

As I’ve followed the conversation on social and traditional media about the demolition of these buildings (and, in particular, listened to what Alexis Varvel, the most eloquent and persistent advocate of these buildings has had to say), it’s helped me think through what I’m going to say about the Wesley College buildings (when I get back to writing them up) is that the fate of the buildings emerged at an interesting intersection of three things:

1. The buildings were adapted for use on the contemporary university campus. This, on the one hand, made them more useful to the campus and ensured that they served as the home for a number of programs and departments over their long history. At the same time, this compromised their distinctive character and made them less unique buildings with unique functional characteristics and more like every other building on campus. As they approached being functionally the same as every other building both through perceptions and manipulations of their fabric, they endured the same fate as any other space on campus. When they no longer were useful, they could be destroyed.

2. When Wesley College folded, it made the history of the institution and its leaders, students, and donors faded in public memory. Because no one on UND’s campus really know who Edward Robertson was (and some folks on campus still try to correct my by saying “oh, you mean Elwyn Robinson.”). The Sayre family is unknown, the Corwin’s sell cars, and Larimore is town. These names no long evoke some kind of storied past that makes these monuments integral to campus life.

3. The dynamism of a campus in flux. One of the most intriguing aspects of the Wesley College buildings is that they were modern buildings, but also contemporary with another time. While they do evoke certain timeless properties, part of what makes them compelling is their distinctive (and, to be blunt, out-dated) aesthetics, proportions, and modularity. At the same time, I suspect that their modernity has made them vulnerable. They aren’t like the rest of campus and instead of fitting into any of the cohesive master plans for UND, they stand apart as the failed framework of an unrealized future. I sometimes wonder whether they’d be easier to save if these were a tepid college Gothic or some kind of universal red-brick building, they might have found a place or formed a relationship with the rest of campus.

Of course, it’s easy enough to also note that the distinctive character of these buildings should encourage our efforts to preserve them, and you wouldn’t be wrong, but campuses are dynamic places and they constantly work to remake their own image into coherent landscape informed by aesthetics, memory, and functionality. The visual language of a campus creates its own logic that we can think away (of course), but usually only in the service of another plan. These plans emerge as much through the casual and contingent juxtaposition of buildings and spaces as they do through intentional “master planning” efforts that construct and create traditions that interweave the contingent persistence of the past with meaning in the present.

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The Abandoned Bakken

This past weekend, Bret Weber, Richard Rothaus, and I headed out West to promote our new book, The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape (NDSU Press 2017) and to visit some of the sites that we documented over the course of the North Dakota Man Camp Project. 

As usual, we spent a good bit of time riding around in Richard Rothaus’s truck and talking about what we saw and what it meant. As importantly, for me, this trip through the Bakken focused on what we should do next (if anything) and how and whether to end a project that has tracked the boom of workforce housing in the Bakken (from around 2012) to its decline in 2018.

Here are my thoughts:

1. Abandonment. I’ve been observing various forms of abandonment in the Bakken since as early as August 2015. This spring’s trip was no exception, but instead of seeing evidence for abandonment that we could use to reconstruct a sites earlier history, we’re now seeing sites that we’ve documented – or even stayed in – for years being dismantled or abandoned. For example, Capital Lodge, which served as our home base in the Bakken for the first few trips to the region, is now being dismantled and the modular units being sold off, bit-by-bit. 


Near Alexander, two large workforce housing sites have been removed and relocated. The MSpace camp which stood on a rural road outside of Alexander, ND has been completely removed. In fact, we found most of the buildings from the camp in a lot just off the side of Route 85 north of Alexander. 



The site of the settlement itself, which opened in 2013, is now abandoned.P1010964


The rough camp outside the old school in Ross, ND is now abandoned as well, and the stackable units in Egan Township are being prepared to be moved to Midlands, Texas.



2. Methods for Documenting Abandoned Camps. We discussed how to approach documenting abandonment in the Bakken. We both agreed that some kind of survey project could capture the material left behind at the sites if we could receive permission from landowners. It seems likely that the communities would also have an interest in our efforts to document the material left behind after a camp departs. Documenting these sites would have to include collecting movable objects, fixed assets like electrical and sewage hooks up, and changes to the landscape like leveling, scoria roads, and gravel for sites.    




We also acknowledged the need dig into the various official records of the settlement sites to determine their legal status, property ownership, and any requirements for clean-up and restoration of the sites as well as their prior history.

Finally, we began to discuss how many sites would for a useful sample to say something meaningful about abandonment in our study area. As importantly, we discussed what we mean by abandonment. Do we mean that the sites have to be completely closed or that they’re in the process of being closed? Is our goal to document the remains of the use assemblage or post-abandonment site formation (understanding, of course, that both will be visible and documented).   

3. Settlement Patterns. I was intrigued to notice that some areas seem to have experienced a bit less abandonment than others. For example, the camps around the town of Alexander appear to be largely abandoned and removed, whereas the sites to the west of Watford City, tucked into the hill between the town and the Watford City Gas Plant, appear to still be occupied and the camps around the intersection of US 85 and Route 200 appear to be in rough shape but occupied as well (although the Bakken Buffet building has been removed). The ongoing use of these sites perhaps reflects the distribution of activity in the Bakken and their locations outside of the jurisdiction of local towns which have worked to eliminate temporary settlements – man camps, RV parks, and the like – in their jurisdiction and to transition workers to more permanent housing and hotels. 

4. The Temporary and the Permanent in the Bakken. We drove through the Watford City and admired the growing ring of new building around the town. As I noted a couple of years before, some of the apartments look similar to the mobile and modular housing that they served to replace suggesting that certain elements of industrial and residential design have started to overlap.


What was equally striking this time through the Bakken was that many of these new constructions were occupied by the same assemblage of trucks and equipment that we saw at camps indicating that they served as worker housing (as well as family housing). A banner advertising four-bedrooms with four-and-a-half baths hint that some of these apartments are designed to accommodate groups of workers and to provide them with their own spaces. More than that, the buildings themselves showed sign of wear that suggested rather low-quality construction. 

In other words, both the residents of the housing may well be temporary. Of course, the permanence of an apartment buildings or even a hotel is relative as the image below of an abandoned modular home site with the closed “Shut-Eye Motel” in the background. 


While I understand that permanent housing is as much defined by its tax status as anything else (and this has attendant benefits to the local communities), it still leaves to my mind a interesting tension between how our ideals of community and settlement have become increasingly defined by economic relationships that stand in as proxies for social values.

5. What’s next? So far, the North Dakota Man Camp Project has published a few articles and a book, but we’ve barely scratched the surface of the data that we’ve collected or the arguments that we can or want to make. We have another book in the pipeline (scheduled for 2019) and contributions to some other projects in the works, but I can’t shake the feeling that we need to do something a bit more sweeping and general.

In fact, I had a bit of a crisis on the trip as I read Hern, Johal, and Sacco’s Global Warming and the Sweetness of Life: A Tar Sands Tale (MIT 2017). The book reminded me that our work on the Bakken is really a contribution to a global story of petroculture. At the same time, petroculture is an expansive and dynamic body of thought that stretches from climate science to literature. Framing our work in the Bakken around these conversations is a daunting task, but I’m increasingly thinking that this is the most valuable contribution that our work can make (and by making our work visible to the current discussion of petroculture, we’re making our work visible to other scholars as well).