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So I noticed something unusual last week in New Orleans–traffic. Traffic caused by a crazy amount of roadwork projects, which, at least in my experience down in NOLA, is a pretty uncommon sight. If any of you have been to this city, it is known for its busted up sidewalks with rambling tree roots winding underneath them and is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a manicured place to live. This is the kind of city that inspires poetry with its lush, reckless landscapes and buildings that are slowly, slowly being pulled back down to the earth from which they came.

But…upkeep is necessary and New Orleans is not known for its lucrative and abundant employment. Those of us who noticed this work last week speculated that there must be a whole lot of Federal funding being pumped into the city, and after a quick internet search, it appears we were right. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (i.e., the Federal Economic Stimulus Bill), is providing $430 million in highway funding and $66 million in transit funding for the state of Louisiana. In February, the city also won a $45 million federal stimulus grant to extend streetcar service with three new streetcar lines.

Road construction was all over the city last week. A good thing for job creation--provided this funding is going to locals--a bad thing if you're trying to meet friends at Cooter Brown's for an Abita.

Roadways also received a whole lot of funding to cover rehabilitation, resurfacing, overlay, or reconstruction (without capacity expansion, which makes sense because the population is still at only about 75% of where it was pre-Katrina) of seriously deteriorating arterial streets. More reliable equipment is also being installed, along with a new local commitment to improved maintenance and better control traffic flow across parishes. Much of that infrastructure was destroyed by flooding caused by the catastrophic failure of the hurricane protection system and is now being repaired.

Oh, I'm torn on this. I love the uneven sidewalks and the live-and-let-live attitude of the city. In cases like this, there is a conflict between preserving a manufactured walkway for public access and preserving the spirit of New Orleans.

Hopefully the jobs being created for these improvements are actually going to locals, unlike the majority of contracts after Katrina that went to contractors in Texas and other bordering states—this did not do any favors to the utterly decimated economy in New Orleans and surrounding parishes. But I have to admit, from a selfish perspective, I was a little confused by the new construction and organization that was now seeming to creep into that city. Historically, New Orleaneans have fought change with a double barrel shotgun–this is evident in its unbelievably confusing street layouts and numbering–but that has always been part of its charm and why it is such a dreamy city for preservationists. Things just really haven’t changed much down there. The architecture has been preserved, either by tradition or neglect, and instead of bulldozing everything that could be built taller, buildings are just dusted off and repainted with broken shutters hanging off of them, gas lamps giving them the same eerie glow they had at the turn of the last century. And that seems to be how locals prefer it.

New construciton projects just outside of the downtown area. Meh.

We need more jobs down there, for sure. But let’s make sure they go to locals–not only because they need the work, but because they understand what it is to be in New Orleans. And let’s not forget the incredibly history of this place, which—and I know I’ve harped on this in the past, but it’s a big deal—boasts more historic districts than any other city in the U.S., despite the fact that I can drive across that entire town it in about 15 minutes. Or at least I could before all the roads were torn up.

Nothing can touch the beauty of these relatively typical double gallery homes. While the city government has shown progress via demolition and new construction, residents hold tight to their history and honor it.

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New Orleans crew April 2010. We are working on four houses this week--this is the house my group is insulating. And don't worry, it will also be restored to its raised double shotgun former glory.

So I’m back in New Orleans this week doing another restoration project in the Holy Cross neighborhood in the Lower 9th. My first day back I spent insulating a home, which was awesome for three reasons: 1) I’ve never done this kind of insulating; 2) The future owners will have a more efficient home, 3) Nobody insulates their buildings in New Orleans. We also took a tour of the Global Green Homes springing up in Holy Cross, which feature solar panels, reflective roofs, low VOC paints and adhesives, geothermal heating and cooling systems (well, one of them does), Energy Star appliances, etc., etc. They are generally going for around $200,000, which seems pretty darned cheap, though they are actually a little pricey for residents who lived in the area pre-Katrina. It’s a tough balance.

I also notice a new trend here–green boutique shops. Despite the Make It Right homes (Brad Pitt’s project in the Lower 9th) and other green building programs that have sprung up in the hardest hit areas and gotten a lot of media hype, New Orleans is just not a very environmentally-conscious city in many ways. Well, save the fact that preservation is King here, which perhaps makes it more environmentally-friendly than anyone gives it props for. I’d love to see that data. At any rate, it’s cool to see that a more conscious and active awareness is growing!

One of several stores along Magazine Street that boasts eco-friendly products.

True dat!

People FIX things here instead of just demolishing them. Buildings are a labor of love and constantly being restored and kept up. The image above is a law office that is replacing some of the wood sideboards. After this, they will likely throw on a couple coats of paint and use the building for another 120 years.

Urban chickens in the back yard of our benevolent landlords' house

Green guard between old joists. We cut strips of insulation, glued them to the wood clapboarding as furring strips, then put the boards over them and sealed them with foam. This allows the walls to breath, reducing potential moisture and mold issues.

A few of the Global Green homes recently built in Holy Cross.

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I stumbled upon an article yesterday in New Scientist that describes how homes made to be more energy efficient are making homeowners complacent–it appears that many people are using just as much energy as they were before they made their homes more efficient. For example, some homeowners tend to crank the heat up more than they did pre-retrofit because they no longer have to worry about bills being as high as they would have been in the past. If a homeowner is used to paying $200 to keep their house at 65 degrees, they might not mind paying $200 to keep their home at 75 degrees where they can walk around in their favorite old Earth Day t-shirt and hemp boxers in the middle of January.

Why yes, this is indeed a rather handsome $5,000 high efficiency boiler! However, if you use it to create a jungle-like climate in your super insulated home, you're not doing yourself or the planet any favors.

While the article focused on a survey done in the UK, there is no doubt that the same thing is happening in the US—I’ve seen it and felt it in the 78 degree basements of homeowners after they’ve had air sealing done and fancy new mechanicals put in. This kind of behavior could be a real barrier in achieving local and national climate action goals in the near future, and is the result of a lack of education, not some demonic plot by the 1960s ranch house down the street to destroy the earth. If the new army of emerging “green” experts only treat the symptom and not the cause, homeowners will not change their behavior because they likely don’t understand the importance of changing their habits. Habits are, without a doubt, the MOST important part of any environmental movement, despite what your Pella Windows rep will tell you. And it is education that is often lost in marketing materials and hasty audits.

For the love of Pete, let's be sure to explain to homeowners how to maintain native plantings so the don't think they are weeds that are harming their turf grass. Photo: Mike MacDonald/ChicagoNature.com

And green education extends beyond just keeping your furnace at a lower temperature and turning off the lights—how about things like on-site water retention and native landscaping? Ever plant a native lawn for someone, only to return a year later to see that they’ve been mowing it like Kentucky Blue Grass? Yeah, that happens. And why wouldn’t it? Who in the last 50 years—at least in the Chicagoland area—has done anything but dump fertilizers and pesticides on their grass and mow the bejesus out of their tiny little plot of lush lawn? Beyond that, neighbors sometimes view urban-tolerant species and native landscaping’s more wild appearance as being the result of a lazy homeowner. As if they had a bunch of car carcasses rusting in their front yard that would drive down the value of everyone’s real estate on the block. Why not educate the homeowner so that they can, in turn, educate their neighbors? When people understand things, they can feel good about them and brag about them and motivate others to do the same.

Let’s all just slow down a half second and take the extra time to educate those who we are trying to help. Really, it is often only a matter of minutes in our day and the results will be so much better and more meaningful. Otherwise, we’re patting ourselves on the back a little too hard, dig?

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In 2007, I spent a month in the Northwest, and three weeks of that was spent living in a log cabin structure in a state park in Idaho, working on another log cabin structure. I was surrounded by gigantic, crazy tall and wide trees (I had honestly never seen trees like this), and apparently I was the only city rat on the trip, completely unable to identify these giants based on their sprigs and bark and all that. I did not learn these things in Chicago and could only try and dazzle others by pretending I was completely unafraid of heights on the work site, or by telling what I believe were clearly the best jokes.

The structure we worked on in Heyburn State Park in Idaho. Don't you just want to be there...breathing? Look at that backdrop!

So to be honest, I still can’t tell you what the difference is between a Ponderosa Pine and Douglas Fir, but I do still try to understand how and why trees are so amazing, and what they really mean to our ecosystem. I was reading a rather horrifying and enlightening NY Times article the other day, and found some striking similarities between the way we value (or rather, devalue) old growth trees and old building stock. Honestly, I occasionally find myself ethically confused when I get up on my soap box and tout the superiority of materials used in historic buildings—materials that have clearly taken the lives of the very things that I would chain myself to save in their living state. On the other hand, I like to think it is a way to honor their sacrifice. I’ll just go with that.

Okay, so back to my point.: the similarities between old growth trees and old buildings.

1: We do more damage removing and replacing existing things.

We often talk about trees being particularly valuable in the sense that they are a carbon sink—that they will pull the carbon out of the atmosphere and help undo some of the damage that we cause. The problem is that once a tree dies—either of natural causes or because we mow it down—it releases that carbon back into the air. What this really means is that if we leave trees alone and let them be for the duration of their natural life, they will store carbon considerably longer (possibly thousands of years) than if we keep planting them and chopping them down. And, of course, if we chop down a bunch of old trees to plant new ones, this releases even more carbon.

This struck me an argument we use all the time in preservation as well: if we keep building and replacing buildings all the time—even if they are replaced with “green” buildings—we are taking all of the value away from the existing structure made with heartier materials and using more energy to demolish it. Then we are replacing it with something that will ultimately be doing even more damage due to having to chop, grow, regrow, mine (etc.) new materials that will require more carbon being released into the atmosphere. On top of that, it takes more energy to ship and build with these materials. I found a handy little calculator online recently that tries to make builders feel better about this. Don’t buy it. Carbon offsets are bunk for many reasons—for more on this, click the NY Times article link in the first paragraph as the author is considerably more articulate than I am on this topic.

The LEED Platinum Cooper Union Academy in NYC.

2. How do we measure and reward for environmentally-friendly measures?

From the NY Times article:

Most of the problems with the system can be traced back to the Kyoto Protocol, which was adopted in 1997. After much political wrangling, the Kyoto delegates decided that there would be no carbon-reduction credits for saving existing forests. Since planting new trees does get one credits, Kyoto actually created a rationale for clear-cutting old growth.

Yeah, sure sounds like the green rating system dilemma preservationists keep slamming up against. How do we reward and appreciate No Action? Sadly, we don’t.

3: How do we value things

From the article:

To preserve something it first has to be valued, and the most effective means of valuing it is to have a practical use for it. If the discussions in Copenhagen were any indication, mankind sees little value in forests, but much in tree plantations.

Obviously, there is considerably less money to be made for building professionals if we slow down the rate of building new structures—or, quite frankly—if they build truly sustainable structures that won’t need to be replaced after 30 years.

Clearcutting. Beyond irresponsible.

4. What about all those things that currently live within all those existing things?

Perhaps the most poignant statement in the NY Times article is, “A forest is an ecosystem. It is not something planted.” I have blogged in the past about community. How, at least in this country, it has come to a screeching halt in so many cities. While deep down I fear a lack of biodiversity more than a lack of neighborliness, certainly the two go hand in hand in the sense that if we have a community, a sense of place, we are more connected to our physical surroundings and tend to respect them more. We need to nurture both our communities and the communities in the nature around us.

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In my last post, I addressed rating systems and brought up the point that it is difficult for rating systems to, well, rate without standardized measures like NFRC ratings on windows. Fortunately, the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) is smarter than me and is addressing this issue at the USGBC Cascadia Chapter’s Living Futures Conference in May. The Trust’s session will focus on “Outcome-Based Energy Codes as a Foundation for Policy and Market Transformation.”

As many of you may have read or heard, a New York Times article from August 2009 revealed that many buildings boasting the LEED label were not performing nearly as well as had been originally predicted by the U.S. Green Building Council. This was a pretty big deal because the LEED label allows building owners to gain tax credits and charge premium rents. It is also, well, a little annoying because there is so much patting on the back and hoopla surrounding these certifications. Once the data was released, some experts in the field were recommending that LEED certification be withheld until a building proves itself to be energy efficient, and that energy consumption data from every rated building should be made available to the public. Honestly, this was a big break for preservationists. Not that we like to encourage failure, but something smelled fishy from the get-go with many of these new “green” construction projects, and there was some rejoicing in that moment of “I told you so.”

Preservation Green Lab was created to encourage municipalities and states around the country to fully consider historic preservation and the existing building stock in formulating their climate change action plans.

I don’t bring that up to rehash the past, but to highlight how smart and timely the NTHP is in regards to this issue, even in a time when their budget is being hacked to bits and they are in danger of losing major programs. I will let Liz Dunne, Consulting Director of the National Trust’s Preservation Green Lab sum up what outcome-based energy codes are about:

The NTHP’s Preservation Green Lab (PGL) is working with the City of Seattle on a new energy code framework that will be based on actual energy performance outcomes, rather than prescriptive measures, for retrofitting existing buildings. Existing energy codes typically rely on prescriptive measures (for example, requiring projects to use windows with a certain “U” value) rather than targeting certain performance outcomes (for example improving overall energy performance by a certain percentage.)

I sometimes think of software and rating systems as a kind of misguided cyborg Superman (surely, I am not alone in this?). They seem like they will fix everything and keep you safe and warm, but in reality, they often lose that human, common sense element, creating even more problems.

PGL is currently calling for case studies on older buildings that have undergone energy efficient retrofits (they don’t need to be historic) to collect more real data and to hopefully be a major voice in this movement–or should I say, a voice that is finally taken more seriously. This data will be valuable in many ways as stimulus money is continually being pumped into home energy improvements, which is always well intentioned but not always in the most effective way to use funding. Energy audits are also proving to be a poor predictor of energy savings with older homes (based on what I have seen, they are inflating the projected energy savings of homes based on the software recommendations), so what is needed are more realistic and outcomes to draw on instead of software programs modeling off of god-knows-what. And, of course, this will also show which measures are effective and which are not delivering what they promise. This is not to say that energy audits are not crucial to energy saving measures, just that they need to be expressed in a different way. Audits are missing that more human element, which could help owners to pay more attention to existing features and not worry so much about all the lab testing done on replacement materials because much of it is bunk or doesn’t take into account existing materials and factors.

In short (finally): I’m completely stoked to see this new data and glad that we’re finally getting to a point where measures installed a couple of years back can now be measured in terms of true performance. It just seems that the most accurate lab testing out there will not be done in a closed room with expensive machines and artificial conditions–it will be the info gathered by the Preservation Green Lab.

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In late February, NPR released a story dealing with historic preservation and green building that raised a lot of eyebrows in the preservation community. In fact, I think about fifteen different people forwarded me the story just in case I missed it. In a nutshell, the story talks about a new law that will go into effect next year in California requiring that all new construction meet significant green building standards. Preservationists worry that this with further reinforce the belief that only new buildings can be green. Patrice Frey, Director of Sustainability Research for the National Trust responded to the article on the PreservationNation blog. Another blog post by Ralph DiNola, LEED AP, LEED Faculty, Associate AIA, and preservationist, also responded to it in great detail. While there are some points that I might argue–like materials reuse credits and how and when they are applied–this is a great post that really breaks down a lot of issues that preservationists bring up on a regular basis. Certainly both blogs are worth the read, regardless of your feelings about LEED. Honestly, I’m still not sold, but think that it’s important to keep up with the changes and to try and understand them.

A 16,000 sf building built in 1865 was awarded LEED Platinum status in New York. 97% of the structure was reused. (Photo from Jetsongreen.com)

The other day I was having a discussion with a green building professional about rating systems and getting ranty about why things like windows were rewarded even in light of evidence that they aren’t terribly effective and certainly not cost-effective in terms of weatherization projects. I naturally just assumed that it was because of the money factor…rating systems catering to green product manufacturers that essentially buy add space in the manuals and training sessions that are related to those rating systems. And while I am still convinced that is part of it, this particular green building professional (and I should say, a friend of mine) brought up a valid point: it is easier to reward and keep track of something like new windows because they are rated by an independent party and therefore have a standard to measure by. In other words, how do we give points to a homeowner who says that they have restored their windows? What if there are no receipts? How can this be monitored and kept track of? I have to say, as much as I hate to admit it, it is a valid point and one we need to address in the preservation community.

The best way to encourage preservation is through incentives–we know this and this is why we push for increased tax incentives for historic properties. So let’s think: how can we prove that we have restored something and avoided landfill waste and new material usage? How can we show the good work we have done without receipts and manufacturing stickers? There are simply not enough auditors and long enough check lists to keep track of these kinds of things in historic homes and then apply them to a rating system. We need to find a creative solutions to these questions and more and find a way to prove what we are doing is good–in my opinion better–for the environment. The burden is on us.

I’ve been entrenched in a Falkner novel recently and this quote struck me: “Facts and truth really don’t have much to do with each other.” It’s basically sums up how I feel about most “green” products and services these days. It seems that common sense usually gets buried under the labels and jargon. Let’s fix that.

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Were Shakespeare alive today, he would likely wrap up his stanza with “Please, historic building owners / Do not fear high efficiency HVAC.”

Preservationists spend a good chunk of their work life dispelling myths about what landmark status really means. I remember touring a home that was completely restored, inside and out, by the current owners. They even used carbon filament light bulbs in common areas. The family had spent a whole lot of time and money on their home—it was obviously a labor of love and it really was just amazing to be in that space. And yet, when I asked them whether they had landmarked their home in all of its curved window and paint-stripped glory, they responded that they would never think of doing that because they would never be able to sell their home due to the restrictions that landmark status would cause. Of course, preservationists out there know that there are barely ANY restrictions that result from giving a building a landmark designation (at least, not with National Register landmarks or local non-profit certifications), and that these homeowners could have saved a whole lot of money with tax incentives during the restoration process if they had designated the bugger. Bummer.

Forcing ductwork through transom windows as if it was some kind of hungry, scifi octopus monster is not historically-sensitive. Putting your ductwork under the sprinkler system so those walking down the hallway are forced to walk like Quasimoto for head clearance is also not historically-sensitive.

I was recently attacked (ahhh!) by an audience member at a lecture who seemed to think that I was telling the crowd that all new technology is bad. My guess is that he was in the renewable energy business and obviously wasn’t listening to the lecture or anything I had been saying for the last hour (save the part where I mentioned that the rate of return on investment for photovoltaic panels and replacement windows ain’t too good). One thing that I stated—very, very clearly because I realize that there is misinformation floating around out there—was that preservationists really don’t have an issue with changing out mechanical systems. In fact, we almost always encourage it because it will, of course, greatly increase a building’s efficiency. But even if we didn’t, interiors are almost never landmarked and likely modifications to systems wouldn’t be visible from the street, so it honestly wouldn’t matter one iota if we thought that adding ductwork and drop ceilings was a really bad idea. Unless, of course, you are just a sensitive person and became upset when someone told you that your interior modifications weren’t well thought out. Then I suppose it might matter to you personally.

A little creativity can go a long way. The drop ceiling isn't ideal, but at least those transoms are can let in light and are operable and fewer head injuries are occurring. The number of octopus-induced deaths has also dramatically declined. It's a reasonable compromise that meets both code and historic guidelines.

That said, there are thoughtful ways to do things and, well, then there is the “get ‘er done, and cheap!” approach. I advocate for the former for a multitude of reasons, one being the fact that you will have a much easier time selling your building in the future if you don’t cheap out in the present (see earlier paragraph for irony). To address the issue of mechanical upgrades, the National Park Service put out an “Interpreting the Standards Bulletin” in 2008 on Installing New Systems in Historic Buildings. These ITS bulletins help clarify the guidelines set forth by the Secretary of Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation in light of changing technology. These can be seen as recommendations for anyone wanting to maintain the historical character of their building while upgrading it, or as interpretations of requirements for buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places (in the case of mechanical upgrades, this would likely only apply if the interior was landmarked). There are a several of these newer “Interpreting” bulletins that I wanted to highlight in coming posts as they address things like solar panels and other green modifications. This one isn’t terribly thorough, but I think it gives a pretty good idea of what to look for and how one might want to approach a project.

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The National Trust for Historic Preservation has an upcoming event and wants as much input as possible. Seems like a cool opportunity to discuss green preservation issues! -Carla

Join a live chat with editors and reporters from Preservation on Wednesday, March 3, from 2:00-3:00 PM EST. This is your chance to talk about the just-released Green Issue, which features a stunning cover story about the retrofitting of the Empire State Building, surprising tales about historic houses restored in a thoroughly green fashion, plus Blair Kamin’s thought-provoking tale entitled “Historic Preservation and Green Architecture: Friends or Foes?”

Kamin, who will participate in a portion of the live chat, is the architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. He currently pens an acclaimed blog, Cityscapes, about buildings and urban spaces in Chicago. His Preservation story looks at how architects sustainably restored three Midwest landmarks: a Frank Lloyd Wright cottage in Wisconsin; the former Sears, Roebuck & Co. Power House on the west side of Chicago; and Mies van der Rohe’s celebrated S.R. Crown Hall on city’s south side.

We look forward to hearing your thoughts about Preservation – and preservation!

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So a few days ago I went to a “Train the Trainer” course for the new lead safety rules that are going to be imposed by the US EPA as of April 22. It seemed a wise thing to do, seeing as it will likely have a substantial impact on preservation issues. Also, as many restoration/rebuild projects as I have done, I have honestly never paid much attention to Lead safe practices, so I figured it would be a good thing to know. Fortunately, one thing I learned is that children 6 and under are much more susceptible to lead poisoning than adults, so I think I’ve got a few years left in me. And, of course, it’s all about me.

Happily scraping lead paint off of a column. New laws will affect any properties that were built before 1978--the year lead paint use was banned in the U.S. In other words, this includes any properties that any preservationists will be working on, and millions more.

Preservationists, remodeling professionals, and deconstruction advocates really need to start paying attention to these new laws as they will raise the cost of repairs and restoration projects by a substantial amount, and may also impact the existing warehouse stock of materials used for restoration and rebuilding. The class I took was only eight hours long and there we only had time to cover about 1/10th the amount of material that was in the manual, so I am still trying to figure out where the lines are drawn in terms of project size, regulation, etc., but it sure does seem that the EPA is tightening up regulations in a very major way. If there is existing lead paint on stock materials, they may well have to go bye-bye and into a hazardous waste landfill (vs. a typical landfill, which will add yet another added expense). Also, any time a contractor is hired to do work–even minor things like window removal and adjustment, they will have to be certified as someone who practices Lead safe practices and may well have to quarantine themselves into the room that they are working on, wear a full body plastic suit, mask, goggles, two layers of gloves…the whole bit. For real. So this will obviously take some getting used to, and preservationists and deconstruction advocates will have to find creative ways to deal with this issue.

Organizing hundreds of salvaged items painted with the leadiest of lead paints. Fortunately, I was older than 6 when this was taken. It is unclear as to whether any damage was done, especially considering the level of disfunction in my Irish/French/Sicilian family.

As I mentioned, I am still learning what all of the restrictions and protocol will be as of April, but wanted to give readers a taste of what they can expect. I am sitting here going through my enormous Lead Safety for Renovation, Repair, and Painting binder (this is referred to as RRP for short, by the way), and thought that to make the list of needed “safe practice” supplies more digestible, I would call upon my undergraduate creative writing education and provide you with a poem. Glad that degree is still serving me. This is perhaps the worst poem I have ever written–and this includes my 15 and 16-year old angsty years where every other poem featured either the word “crimson” or “abyss”–but what the hell.

Barriers, Signs, Entry Doors

When you said that you needed me to leave,
When you said that you wanted clearance,
When you put the barrier tape
Around your heart,
I had no choice but to leave this toxic space,
cover the furniture, leave the dust of our lives
whirling behind me.

Oh, the warning signs were carved around me–
Utility knives, razor blades, scissors,
I simply could not move past the thick, plastic sheeting
That encompassed me. Us.

You think that you can close up all the windows and doors,
keep me away with
Duct tape, masking tape, painter’s tape, staples?
Watch me raise up the broom handle in a protest of your defiance.
Watch me sweep you off your feet.
(Actually, a HEPA vacuum would be considerably more effective)

Oh, lead paint, why must you be so terribly photogenic?

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Every February I start thinking about leaving Chicago. Historically, this has been because I am so incredibly tired of the weather here by February—the fact that my eyeballs freeze when I walk too quicky, the slush soaking my socks, the generally crabbiness of the population, the inability to ride my bike because I’m afraid of hitting black ice on Clark Street and doing irreparable damage to my brain—but this year my reasons are evolving. I have lived in, or on the cusp of, a huge metropolis my entire life, and lately I just find the work that I hear about in smaller cities to be much more inspiring that the battles we face in larger, more populous cities.

I'm not sure this requires a caption. (FLICKR/M.V. Jantzen)

If you’ve read this blog with any consistency, you have no doubt picked up on my obsession with New Orleans. But beyond my general love of the culture, history, iconoclasm, music, and live oaks, I like the crazy sense of possibility of that city. Essentially, the city government has been incredibly ineffective there (most notably during the past 5 years), so it has effectively turned over many of the basic functions of the city to non-profits and anyone willing to take charge on a project. But other places are doing this as well. Places like Detroit, which is described by many as a wasteland and is now inspiring incredibly cool urban gardening and preservation programs, and smaller communities that focus on local economies, are drawing more and more people tired of trying to work within the constraints of – or without any support from— their larger government. These places are also beginning to draw those who are tired of paying through the nose to live in a large city that just isn’t providing the quality of life that most people would expect during their blip of time on this planet.

Detroit, a former industrial giant, is now turning some of its blighted land into vegetable gardens and becoming a leader in the urban farming movement. (Photo taken from http://www.thelateralhippogriff.com)

A couple of years ago I stumbled upon an article about Braddock, Pennsylvania, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. At its height, Braddock was a thriving city of 20,000, but lost 90% of it’s population due to the decline of the steel industry in the 1980s and 90s. Enter John Fetterman, a Harvard Public Policy grad who, though creativity and tireless, enthusiastic focus on community, is slowly turning this forgotten city around. Read about this guy—he’s 6’9’’, 300 pounds, bald, tattooed, and inspiring countless public programs through education, art, environmental and preservation initiatives. Seriously, if you’re feeling stuck, read more about this place and get inspired.

Braddock has a whole lot of room to grow and welcomes countless progressive initiatives, like this Fossil Free Fuel station that powers diesel vehicles with vegetable oil. Why have I not done this in my life yet? Why? (Photo by Anne O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

What I think is so appealing about places like Braddock is the focus on local efforts and community. The culture in the U.S. is increasingly focused on the individual. We have lost our neighborliness across the board, from cities to farmlands, and are almost completely without a safety net in most areas of our lives. Now that pensions are being yanked and companies are increasingly unable to provide health insurance, honestly, what do we have to lose? My best days working at the Chicago Center for Green Technology were days when someone would come in asking for help with their plans to build a community garden or how to start up groups to educate their neighborhood about sustainability. People who wanted to know how to clean up their tiny local strip of green space so that their kids literally didn’t have to play on broken glass or so they could get some fresh veggies that summer. I’ve seen pamphlets of countless new green communities and most of the pictures are of people working together on gardens and running around outside. None, I might add, are pictures of someone sitting in front of their 50” plasma screen t.v., alone, bored, and eating takeout. Obviously the images of community, connectedness, and fresh food are effective because more and more of these communities keep sprouting up. Granted, I feel that we should first use the existing buildings and infrastructures of countless towns that have been abandoned as their industry has left, but the point is that having more of a connection to your space and working together with your neighbors to create or recreate a thriving local community is where we need—and I would argue want—to head in this country.

So, anybody out there want to revive an old town? Some day soon, I might just be tempted to lead the charge.

I've had my eye on Cairo, Illinois for a while now. Tell me that's not tempting. (Photo by Michael Eastman, who has put together an amazing collection of photos called Vanishing America - http://www.eastmanimages.com)

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