There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by. —Annie Dillard
Watching a sunrise is breathtaking. Not actively watching it, mind you, but witnessing it unfold as a backdrop to the daily activities of people rising to greet the dawn, or with the pattering raindrops of sneakers, listening to those on their early runs, steam swirling from the cold air touching their radiated heat.
Watching a sunrise solely focused on the sun itself is to witness only the composer, the cacophony of sound comprising life unheeded. The mundane details no longer seem so mundane when orchestrated together with the rising tide of light that greets the early morning’s day. That is truly the sunrise.
A year ago, I stepped out into Paris and felt at once wonder, awe and confusion. The buildings were so close to me as to feel confining, looming, tempting to fall atop one another, to fall on top of me.
As we wound our way towards the Seine, even larger, epic sculptures rose, the grandeur of it all was magnificent, but also overwhelming.
We continued walking, the space aired out a bit, the arteries of the city opened up to us. We stepped into throngs of cheery people weaving in and out of the streets, alleyways and each other. It was the Summer Solstice. Despite the joy that grew out of the shared festivities, when I think back to that night I remember looking behind towards the Notre Dame while noting:
“As beautiful as these spaces and structures are, someone—a lot of someones—built all of this.”
It’s easy to cascade over the spectacle of such monuments, to stare in amazement at the sheer dominance of human achievement. All it took was an idea, a genius, a king with a vision: these immense markers of civilization now sit to spell France’s glory.
But it wasn’t just one Louis’ vision and it wasn’t one Old Master’s persistence was it? It took many hands extending from overburdened backs to carry each piece of stone that made the historical monuments we see today. It clearly took a millennium of vision and certain genius for these to exist. But it also took the hard work of the unsung to manifest that idea.
The same is with any modern project, objective or goal. It’s easy to gloss over the machinations churning in the background as Matt and I travel the States. Yes, we do quite a bit of work ourselves, unnoticed by the general public. The grind of waking up early, following up with the professionals met days prior, mapping out a route for the new city we’re in, plotting the engagement of strangers and organizations alike, the continuous introduction of the project and the meeting of a new person to new person to new person for hours end over. It’s not a stagnant nine-to-five desk trap, but it is work. We’re lucky enough to have the opportunity: we enjoy it.
Behind it All
There is more to SBYF than just Matt and myself, however. The pictures and stories come from our point of view, but a very integral team sits behind us, behind the spaces, no less important to the project. They helped make SBYF what it is today, are helping make what it will become.
They all give their time willingly, donating extraordinary amounts of effort to create the digital storybook that carries the project’s parable, to test postcard prompts, to create copious amounts of logos, images and designs. These professionals shoot hours of video, edit hours of video, sound engineer music, record voice overs, hand sketch/draw/paint illustrations, execute well-planned photographs, design the experience (of three iterations) of websites and build physical exhibit structures. These are the folks helping make the idea happen. They are the ones Matt sits with to plan the direction of our mission, to discuss how to best preserve the beautiful postcards you send back and how best to showcase them. When the logistical weight of growing an intergenerational community looms over top, they are the helping hands that guide things forward.
Amidst the project’s mission to bring intergenerational connectedness, to foster relationships and to bring about the awareness of Alzheimer’s disease, it’s easy to forget the team that is helping in every way they can, bringing together their creative and logistic energies to achieve the SBYF Project’s goals. The value of work they bring to the table is staggering.
If there is one thing I’ve learned while working with a talented pool of hardworking individuals, it’s to value the people you work with and to value their creative efforts—especially when it’s donated. Sometimes it’s easy to dimiss their creation as simply a means to an end, but they’ve dedicated a part of themselves in making that tool. It only does these folks justice to mention them by name:
And of course, you. Thank you for supporting our project (all of you who were once strangers and now no longer are!) and for submitting your memories. Without your page in the story, our book would be incomplete.
Entrenched in the day-to-day of the operational side of things, I wanted to take a moment and thank you, those that sit behind the spaces.
To call this a photo essay may be misleading. It’s more apt to being called a photo synopsis.
The snapshots were chosen to give a quick overview of the variety of scenes and scenarios I encountered. There are interesting events that aren’t depicted below. For example, we had a wonderful dinner at the home of a Grosse Pointe, MI art center director and some of her best friends/colleagues. And I spoke at length with a Doctor of Social Psychology and his niece at the park.
With this past week of travel, encounters and workshops, there’s too much to give a thorough description of things learned, things seen and people met. I wager you can get a better sense of that over here.
But, for those of you that want to see what my eyes saw through the lens of a camera, here’s a glimpse of the sights from the road.
Toledo was a great city for us. We came into it late. These grainy, streaked photos best depict our state of mind. Hungry, we drove to Maumee Bay for some food. Had we felt better, we probably would’ve enjoyed some of their unique brews too.
On our way to Toledo earlier that day, this is a view from the Domonkas Public Library.
The hearty bread prepared by the personable folks at Country Grains Bread & Deli was a nice respite from the more urban setting of Toledo the following day.
The transformation along Lake Erie is at once beautiful, awing and sad. Along the edge of the water from Cleveland to Toledo (and even a bit past Toledo), parks, trees and the water offered serene solace. As we got closer to Detroit, the remnants of industry, vast architectural artifacts from a lost civilization, began to emerge.
Within Detroit, we saw the same remnant buildings, sights of the industrial grandeur that once was. Where industry left, the arts filled in. Detroit is an insightfully artistic community, with vast amounts of opportunity for the public to learn, appreciate and share art.
Beauty of Detroit
This is Edie Hardy, a veteran of the Korean War. He’s a kind, quiet man, who was interested in submitting his postcard to the project.
His friend, Roy Adams, wondered if his story would be adequate for the archive.
I was in college and a few people told me I should go marching with this man I didn’t know. We were in Washington D.C. and I got swept up with the march. People were yelling at us and the guards wanted to unleash their dogs on us. And then I understood what this man, who I didn’t know, was trying to do. Martin Luther King Jr. just wanted everyone to accept who we were.
We were given a special tour of the Detroit Institute of Art and came upon the Rivera Court. Wall frescas by Diego Rivera, the murals “depict industry and technology as the indigenous culture of Detroit.”1
Everyone we met pointed us to Ann Arbor. I handed out close to 100 postcards to receptive individuals and even got a chance to play capoeira with some of the folks at the Diag.
After a successful start in Ann Arbor, we rounded out the night with a film we never heard of: The Intouchables. Shown at Michigan Theater, a historic non-profit venue, the film was everything good about storytelling and humanity.
There is a proclamation that states people in public space need reconnecting.
This remains true. There is absolutely no better feeling than connecting with a complete stranger, in the end both agreeing that we’ve connected with our fellow man. Breaking through that barrier of mistrust, that thin veil of viscous armor, creates a connecting point. And relating begins. For me, however, the trip hasn’t simply been about the golden virtues of our mission. Nor has it simply been a tale of adventures, whether rough or with ease. It’s made me ask tough questions and personally inquire.
While we’re walking around Central Park on an afternoon, why are we quick to point out the people on their smartphones or with their headphones plugged, but pass by—sans comment—those reading their paperbacks or perusing articles in a (hardcopy) magazine? Are we more comfortable with “traditional” media in public space now that there’s been a century of precedence? Or is our discomfort with the on-demand nature of current technology that can spiral a person ever inward making them lose sight of the world around them? I have my guesses, but no substantive answers. What I do know is that while engaging a human being one-on-one is far more rewarding, having done so, following up with them is far more conceivable with the current technology available. “You want more information on our project? Sure, below is our web address, but if you provide me your email, I can also shoot you a one page overview of what we do.”
Could it be that engaging in public space changed, because the multicultural landscape changed? Perhaps engaging in public space became so difficult, because every culture on American soil came from a culture that engaged in public spaces differently?
How about the idea that there was a time when Americans connected better, that golden era of trust and community? What changed? Was it the Red Scare and then the Cold War that altered the American perception of trust? Or the technology that came with it?
Perhaps it was easier for Americans to stay connected before the 1940’s and 1930’s because America was more homogenous than it is now. There was a time when, while we fought the good fight overseas, we locked up any Japanese-American into interment camps due to mistrust.1 That was the 1940’s. So was the trust and community only for a particular concept of America?
Then came a wave of social change during a time when we were at war against Communism and terror causing the Second Red Scare, McCarthyism.2 Change scared folks. War scared folks. Misinformation and ignorance scared folks. Maybe this affected our perceived notion of trust and engagement in public spaces as much as the rapid adoption of digital technology.
I don’t believe we’ve become disengaged so much as we are in the midst of learning how to engage with a diverse pool of merging identities, values and shared enrichment.
More importantly, as the United States grew to become the melting pot, answering the call for opportunity and freedom, possibly so too came the freedom and opportunity of differing cultures, of differing practices. Could it be that engaging in public space changed because the multicultural landscape changed? Perhaps every culture on American soil came from a culture that engaged in public spaces differently? If this is so, I don’t believe we’ve become disengaged so much as we are in the midst of learning how to engage with a diverse pool of merging identities, values and shared enrichment.
These, of course, are speculative queries, quasi-hypotheses constructed after 17 days of being on the road, four of which carried a headache swollen and sodden. Cause and effect of today versus yesterday is too easily assumed. And I only have questions. I could consider Jürgen Habermas’ concept of public sphere3 and the role of the Internet affecting it and I could address how developed discourse communities4 affect communication in public space. The chance of answering the questions above along with their relation to the topics stated are currently beyond my scope of research, but certainly within my interests to further pursuit in the future.
So my personal mission isn’t so much reconnecting a la the “good ‘ole days” before technology and before people stopped talking to one another. Those were different days with different rules and different cultures. With the Union being a diverse, multifaceted nation full of diverging and converging ideas, our postcards give us a reason to engage strangers within a public space. A peace offering to gain trust and thereby connect with the various communities we encounter.
After the growing pains of the 20th Century, I believe that the SBYF Project’s aim to join together a large tapestry of what America is today is noble. It challenges the difficulties the nation had in the past and looks towards an intergenerational connectivity. Engaging with the unknown, with strangers, with the strange and new, this is good. It’s a part of what makes travel so compelling, about learning from cultures, histories and experiences different from our own so enriching. Who would have thought we’d have that opportunity right in our backyard, with our fellow countrymen? Perserving these stories is what draws me to the project.
Perhaps one day we’ll still continue sharing postcards, preserving memories and connecting generations, but no longer need them as a tool to meet a stranger. A genuine “hello” and a sincere smile should do.
Rambling notes from a digital-but-desirably-analog Anthropologist Wannabe
(Note: Or for the impatient, you can just skip all of the exposition and scroll on down to the photos!)
The rain followed us today. After several successful meetings with a variety of organizations we sop into the main Cleveland Public Library, through some epic archways and into the main information lobby.
“Can we help you?”
The question was directed at me. Usually, when we split up, I field the questions just like Matt. When we’re together, Matt takes charge and I act as backup. Today, though we are paired, I am the target.
“Yes, actually. We’re a community art project driving across America handing out postcards to preserve memories… uhh… actually, let me pull one out for you to see.”
I hear Matt chuckle. Like I said, when we’re pulling a teamup, Matt usually has the card in hand, pitch in place. And he’s done it so many more times than me.
“It’s an art project to bring awareness to Alzheimer’s,” Matt says. I’m still fumbling for the card. “We’ve been engaging local libraries in every community we come across to see if we can share this project with any writing or art programs you may have.”
I’ve managed to pull the card out now and as Matt’s talking to the one information specialist, I show the other how the cards work.
“We know just who you need to talk to. Aaron’s the one.”
Specialist 1 jots down Aaron’s information and hands it to Matt.
“Actually, is there someone available today we can talk to in person? You see, we’re just here for the day.” Score. I just provided some leadership skills there. Hopefully it made up for my earlier foil.
“He’s busy right now, but we can try.” Specialist 1 calls Aaron. “Well, they said they’re only here today and they have an art project about Alzheimer’s… Gentlemen, Aaron will be right down.”
Aaron meets with us, shakes our hands and asks what he can do for us. We explain the project again and he assures us that he can incorporate it into some workshops and programs they have scheduled for the upcoming fall.
“By the way, I know you guys are on a tight schedule, but do you know about the Cleveland Public Library?” Aaron asks.
Matt and I both shake no.
“Well, if you guys have the time, I’d like to give you a tour. We have one of the oldest and largest Chess collections.”
Already I’m grinning. If there’s anything I love more than large neoclassical libraries, it’s large neoclassical libraries promoting chess and history.
We take an elevator up three floors, walk through an exhibit corridor full of antiquities and into another information desk.
“These gentlemen are with me. Do we have nice books lying around we usually show to the guests? Any large, illustrated books we showcase?”
Aaron proceeds to show us the various pieces within the Special Collections Department. As we’re left to admire Babylonian cuneiform seals and 19th century portraits, Aaron brings Pam, the Fine Arts and Special Collections Manager over to us.
“Here’s Pam, she’s the expert here and knows about every piece we have in this library.”
Pam goes on to show us the following, bringing some out of hidden storage for us to see.
After hearing that I teach as a part-time instructor at the Moore College of Art and Design, Pam rushed to unearth these fine specimens.
In the end, I had to be torn away. “Phil, parking meter’s empty.” Damn those meters. We did have several more stops to make so it wasn’t just because of the parking authority.
Pam and Aaron left us with their cards, a promise to promote SBYF Project and copies of their beautifully designed books on various subjects promoted by the library. Both were wonderful hosts, fantastic ambassadors for the city of Cleveland. As members of the public’s resources for information, culture and art, they were some of the finest. And they even indulged a visual designer’s dreams of being an anthropological researcher. If only for the day.