Cornbread 4 Eva: Graffiti, Part II

In honor of less-than-stellar days, here is some stellar street art.

graffiti: cornbread 4 eva, with a crown.
Cornbread 4 Eva on Krannert Center for the Performing Arts

I’m going to assume the above is cornbread for ever, rather than cornbread for my middle name, although clearly one can never be sure—perhaps Eva really likes cornbread! This is one of my all-time favorite whacko pieces of graffiti; I got the image fairly early in my tenure in Chambana, though it may still be on the building. I’d like to think that it was some performer in a moment of high hilarity (or perhaps excess alcohol!), providing us all with sufficient entertainment to make it through another round of exhaustion and overwork. Cornbread 4 eva!

Kilroy was here!
Kilroy was here! Somehere in Urbana.

Kilroy’s here! I think I’ve seen him all over, but I’m pretty sure this iteration of our national trickster lives somewhere in downtown Urbana, just as delightfully tricksey as ever he was.

an ink eye, UIUC campus
The eye is watching. UIUC campus.

The eye is close kin to IT’S CHALK, which was not written in chalk, and which I presented in Part I. I occasionally wonder if it’s the same person—I mean, I’m pretty sure it’s the same not-chalk—but this person probably was more concerned with surveillance (maybe? I’m really not sure?), while CHALKer was just goofin’ around.

white swirly design on a sign post
swirly things on a signpost! UIUC

The signposts in Chambana—probably in every college town, everywhere, if Hyde Park is any indication—are a canvas for local street artists, taggers, and drunk people. Some of what gets tagged isn’t really worth remembering, but some, like this random design, really is.

stenciled bear with one round eye and one star eye on a no parking sign
Stencil Bear and No Parking

Like signposts, No Parking signs are great for tagging. This one is, I’m pretty sure, a stencil (look at the edges), decorating a NO PARKING sign. I love this kind of decoration. Facilities probably doesn’t.

smileyface on the back of a sign in the UIUC area
🙂 on the back of a sign in Urbana

🙂 Check the back of a sign the next time you’re in a college town—it might have a stencil, or a sticker, or a political slogan (there are a lot of those)…or it might be smiling at you!

Person made out of pins on a cork board.
Pin person on a pin board in a hallway

The pin person isn’t quite street art, and it isn’t graffiti, but it is hallway art, which, I think, must be close kin to the transitory nature of so much street art. Pin guy lived, for a while, on one of our corkboards in the Foreign Language Building, the fabulously ugly building which was my home away from home for the four years I spent in Urbana. Little things like PinPerson really made FLB home, the sort of place where a (dis)placed student could feel safe. Everyone decorated FLB, from posters to bumperstickers to PinPeople. There may forever be new generations of students living in its unhallowed halls, but that, at least, will remain the same.

TOY written on WORKERS sign.
Watch out for toy workers! Urbana, Illinois

Is this art? Probably not really? But I don’t care! It’s amazing! TOY WORKERS injected a whole lot of humor into my summer the year it appeared.

Butterflies on a piller between science buildings, Urbana
Between the science buildings.

Sometime while I wasn’t around—which wouldn’t, in truth, have been difficult—someone stenciled the pillars between two science buildings with butterflies. Lots and lots and lots of butterflies. I’m not, of course, entirely sure what they meant to do with them, but I loved them then, and I love them now. It’s a startling and joyous thing to stumble across, while rushing to work and to class and then home again, jiggity-jog.

TEMPO written on a signpost in Hyde Park, University of Chicago campus
TEMPO, Hyde Park

I feel like TEMPO is profoundly Hyde Park graffiti, although I suppose it could just as easily have been found on a building near Krannert. But here’s (down) tempo for you, on the back of a sign.

Detail of the (pre-2015) Red Herring sign shows an eggplant bassist, Urbana, Illinois
Detail of the (pre-2015) Red Herring sign, Urbana, Illinois.

This isn’t quite what we usually consider street art—it’s a business sign, the one formerly attached to the Red Herring in Urbana—but it really is street art, too: it’s a part of the urban art scene, for the time that it is there. Alas, it’s been painted over now; I don’t like the new sign half as much as I like this eggplant bassist.

Red Herring sign with leaves, vegetables, and eggplant bassist, Urbana, IL. Pre-2015.
The Red Herring sign, pre-2015. Urbana, Illinois.

For reference, here’s the full sign. It was a gem, I tell you, and I mourn that it is gone.

And that’s it for Part II—though there will definitely be more. 🙂

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On Being an Unfixable Dyslexic Nerd

I’ll tell you a not-exactly-secret secret: I’m dyslexic. I’ve been dyslexic all my life: my neurons do not, as it were, fire quite like yours. (Or maybe you are dyslexic, too, and then our neurons have something in common.) When I was younger I never thought I’d publicly admit to being dyslexic—and then, my last year in grad school, I actually presented on it. I will tell you an actual secret now: I was so afraid I was shaking when I did so; I thought I would collapse midway through, thought I’d do more than uptalk and say “um.” I’ll always wonder if I damaged my chances in the extraordinarily competitive world of libraries by acknowledging what I am—and yet I am glad I did.

I’m neither broken nor Baroque, though I surely do like Early Modern lit! From link.

Here’s a truth: dyslexia is part of my identity, like having dark hair or freckles or a taste for Wisconsin cheese or heavily muscled football player’s legs. It’s not always a source of happiness—I mean, it rarely is—but then, I’m not always thrilled about my legs, either, even if they do mean I can walk or ski for miles. As a kid I memorized a lot—you would, perhaps, not believe quite how much—and I teamed up with friends, and I made it. Not always easily, not always prettily—a teacher once told my mother, in front of me, that I was developmentally delayed (definitely not the word she used)—but I made it. And then I learned to read on Shakespeare, and took off running. But don’t think I wasn’t compensating, because I was. We all learn to do it. But—and this is important—dyslexia isn’t something to be changed, or taken away, or reversed. I am not broken, and therefore cannot be fixed.

A nicer reaction to realizing that yet another random person thinks you’re broken.

Recently, in a task related to my job, I happened to be scanning the card catalog for books pertaining to dyslexia, hoping to find fiction in which the dyslexic was treated as a normal person and not as, say, a magical (learning) disabled entity, which drives me nuts. So imagine my frustration when I stumbled across a book promising to “reverse” dyslexia. (I refuse to link to the book; it’s called Reversing Dyslexia: Improving Learning and Behavior Without Drugs.) We dyslexics already struggle with our self-esteem and are prone to anxiety1; the last thing we need is to hear that we suck, and are broken, and somehow “fixable”—maybe, if we spend the money/follow the plan/drink the snake oil.

Into the Woods. Gif from Giphy.

As a child, struggling to read and to do what was expected of me, I didn’t need to hear that another person thought I was broken. I needed to see myself reflected back at me—another reason why #WeNeedDiverseBooks, folks—and I needed people to believe in me, even when that was hard. I needed to know some of the things I’ve since learned, from researching dyslexia. As an adult, I’ve found out that lots of other dyslexics have trouble separating the conversational wheat from the chaff in a crowded room,2 and that many of us struggle with self-esteem, concealment, and anxiety.3 Hell, we apparently don’t even hear words right all the time, which makes it hard to connect letters with sounds and influences our common (in)ability to syllabify.4

And so, because in library school I was angry and alienated to find little or no mention of other people like me, I started researching, as it were, myself. You are not alone, the research whispers to me. I don’t always understand what the hell it’s saying to me—I often stick, particularly with the neurology texts, to introductions, conclusions, and discussions, which are sometimes understandable to a layperson with a good background in science—but I know that I’m not wrong, or broken; it’s just the way my brain happens to be made. It drives home the incredible preciousness of my ability to read: each word is like a treasure pulled from the dark, and, when I began to lose my reading comprehension at the end of my first Master’s, as I forced myself through sometimes as much as a thousand pages in a day, I was about as afraid as I have ever been. Words are, you see, rather my life’s work; I was reminded, forcefully, that sometimes, I need to make accommodations for myself.

I am often rather bad at accommodating myself, though I am fairly good at offering discreet accommodation to others. I am super-duper good at compensating, though! I definitely got skills! (I’m not sure this is something of which to be proud, but it has become part of who I am.) It’s probably part of why I listen quite as hard as I do, why I watch as carefully as I always have. Maybe it has something to do with my tendency towards careful sourcing and research—after all, when words have been a struggle (and when one sometimes mixes them up even in one’s speech), one must take extra care with one’s choices. And, as an inveterate reader ever since Much Ado About Nothing dragged me into literacy, I have sought out others like myself—rarely, alas, with any kind of success.

The first time I ran into a recognizable dyslexic in my reading, it was in Connie Brockway‘s As You Desirea historic romance novel set in Egypt. The six-pack-abbed, profiteering/archaeologist/white-steed-ridin’ hunk of manhood hero was, quite recognizably (at least for me), a dyslexic. Brockway identified him as such in her author’s note at the end, acknowledging that his ability to read hieroglyphics might have been wild but she was stickin’ with it. (I don’t know: we all have our things, so why not have a dyslexic who could read hieroglyphs?) I have, quite literally, zilch in common with Harry Braxton, our man on the white horse, but for a common neurological difference.

It was an amazing moment, to find someone else, out there, in print–someone who (aside from his romantic perfections) wasn’t actually a magical disabled person, at all. He was just a dude with elastic morals on a white horse. The next guy I found was, once again, in a romance novel—this time the hero of Tessa Dare‘s second Castles Ever After book, Say Yes to the MarquessSpoiler alert: Cleo totally doesn’t say yes to the marquess; she marries his dyslexic prizefighting brother, instead. (In case you’re wondering: the prizefighting seemed totally reasonable to me; we all compensate in our own ways, and I know my father was famed—not in a particularly good way—for hitting first, and hitting hard—and he was nowhere near as large as the fictional Rafe Brandon.)

I think my favorite fictional dyslexic, as of now, is Wylan Van Eck, one of the ensemble cast of Leigh Bardugo‘s amazing Six of Crows duology. The thing is, while Wylan doesn’t usually seem to have problems understanding people in crowded situations–although I should probably re-read it; he actually might—I know him, so very, very well. Unlike me Wylan’s family is wildly unsupportive—his father, upstanding soul that he is, wants Wylan dead—and it takes the morally elastic Kaz Brekker to recognize Wylan’s genius. (Brekker himself has a disability, one which, from what I have gathered, rather mirrors Bardugo’s own—although that hasn’t stopped some folks from saying that she “doesn’t know what she’s talking about,” which is, I guess, a good time to point out that disabilities, like everything else, are individual.) Wylan is, you see, really, really smart. He’s also deeply ashamed of his inability to read, and his self-esteem is definitely messed up. He compensates, and hides, and tries not to get backed into situations wherein he can’t help but reveal his difference. And, boy, do I get that. I can read—and read well—but I, too, try to hide, whenever possible. It’s so much easier, so much less frightening.

Flagrantly untrue, but a nice sentiment nonetheless.

Evil Willow, up there, has monumental self-confidence. I don’t. I do, however, have a bunch of degrees, and various academic honors. I’m a damn good researcher, even if sometimes it takes me a little to figure out spelling. (I have lots of tricks for that, no worries.) It’s still upsetting to see things assuring me that I’m broken but can be “fixed”—and, in truth, I don’t even want to think about what it’s like for a kid who’s already struggling with being different. I’d so love to see us reach a day where being different isn’t seen as wrong, or bad, or a problem to be fixed. For now, I’ll keep on trying to do my part to get there. We can only ever go forward—and, for me, that’s probably a really good thing.

Works Cited

1 This is cited in multiple studies, including the following:

  • Alexander-Passe, N. (2006). How dyslexic teenagers cope: An investigation of self-esteem, coping, and depression. Dyslexia, 12(4), 256-275. DOI: 10.1002/dys.18
  • Habib, L., Berget, G., Sandnes, F.E., Sanderson, N., Kahn, P., Fagernes, S., & Olcay, A. (2012). Dyslexic students in higher education and virtual learning environments: An exploratory study. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 28, 574-584. DOI:10.1111/j.1365-2729.2012.00486.x
  • Heiman, T. (2008). Females with learning disabilities taking on-line courses: Perceptions of the learning environment, coping and well-being. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 21(1), 4-14. Available open-access from ERIC.
  • Ingesson, S.G. (2007). Growing up with dyslexia: Interviews with teenagers and young adults. School Psychology International, 28(5), 574-591. DOI: 10.1177/0143034307085659
  • Nalavany, B.A., Carawan, L.W., & Sauber, S. (2015). Adults with dyslexia, an invisible disability: The mediational role of concealment on perceived family support and self-esteem. British Journal of Social Work, 45, 568-586. DOI: 10.1093/bjsw/bct152

Sometimes, I wonder if this is behind some of my own occasionally debilitating anxiety.
2 Chandrasaekaran, B., Hornickel, J., Skoe, E., Nicol, T., & Kraus, N. (2009). Content-dependent encoding in the human auditory brainstem relates to hearing speech in noise: Implications for developmental dyslexia. Neuron, 64(3), 311-319. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2009.10.006
3 See note1 for this.
4 Blau, V., Reithler, J., van Atteveldt, N., Seitz, J., Gerretsen, P., Goebel, R., & Blomert, L. (2010). Deviant processing of letters and speech sounds as proximate cause of reading failure: a functional magnetic resonance imaging study of dyslexic children. Brain: A Journal of Neurology, 133, 868-879. DOI: 10.1093/brain/awp308.

Further Reading

Accessible Options: Putting Learning Disabilities into Library School” (aka my presentation)

“Accessible Options” slides

Dyslexic Teens in the Library: Trends and Best Practices” (me again)

The Geek’s Guide to Disability” from The Bias.

Pinterest board where I occasionally pin research about dyslexia.

The Significance of Semantics: Person-First Language: Why it Matters,” by Lydia Brown.

Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity

Don’t Look: Banned Book Week 2016, Challenges to Diverse Materials, and #WeNeedDiverseBooks

who-challenges-books-2016

Image from ALA.

Every year at the end of September, we come to Banned Books Week. It’s an important thing for us librarians; it’s an important thing for us Americans–we need to remember that yes it does happen here too–and it can sometimes be a fun thing, as we gleefully read books that somebody, somewhere, wants taken off the shelves because they’re tricksey hobbitses or something.

stand-up-_facebook1-2016

Image from ALA.

Book banning, and intellectual freedom, are, in a way, tricksey hobbitses–they’re incredibly complex, and, as I learned from the brilliant Emily Knox, defending freedom of speech can sometimes leave one feeling rather icky. It’s not a liberal/progressive value, we were told; it’s a libertarian one. And it’s one of our profession’s core values, right along with privacy and social justice. The books we are called to defend aren’t always comfortable creatures. Sometimes they’re meh and sometimes they’re stunning: Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, for instance, has been banned all over the place, ever since it was first published.

9-of-the-top-10

From ALA.

Absolutely True Diary is also my entrée into why this particular Banned Books Week is extra important, even as the world seems to be burning around us. As noted in the graphic above, books with diverse content–generally pertaining to race, ethnicity, or gender/sexuality/LGBTQ+ issues–are challenged and banned at much higher rates than, say, books about straight white people. (Interestingly, immigration also factors into challenges, possibly because books about immigrant experiences often–although definitely not always–deal with diversity too.)

2016-infographic-why-books-are-banned

Those dirty, dirty books. From ALA.

So, this Banned Books Week, I’d argue we should do a bit more than reading banned and challenged books: we should challenge ourselves to read diverse books, too. We live in an increasingly diverse country, one in which–for the first time since the conquest, amirite?–our kids are majority-minority. In short, we desperately need books wherein our heroes (and our antiheroes, too) look like us. We need books with heroes with disabilities; we need books with people of color.

From ALA.

And, while we are starting to get more, the stats are still pretty abysmal. How can we help? Well, one very simple way is to read what we’ve got now–buy it, check it out from the library, suggest it, recommend it, pin it to Pinterest, tack it onto Goodreads, blog about it, whatever your preferred method may be: the more we read these books, the more publishers will publish.

Publishing is, after all, a business.

Children’s Books

The ALA maintains a list of frequently banned and challenged children’s books here. (I am kinda sad that people challenge books about kids’ bodies, honestly. And I don’t, personally, suggest Tintin or Sambo for anything other than studies of racism.) Among the challenged stands Dr. Seuss’s Hop on Pop. (The challenger wanted money or something?–which is still deeply confusing. All righty then.) And, of course, back in 2010, Texas banned Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?–because they got the children’s author Bill Martin, Jr. and the Marxist theorist Bill Martin, a professor at DePaul, confused. (This is why fact-checking is essential, yo.)

There are a lot of really amazing resources for those interested in reading diverse books. The single best source for information–since it links to all the other sources, really–is #WeNeedDiverseBooks, where one can find information on pretty much all the diverse book awards out there, along with tons of reading lists. The CCBC’s Multicultural Literature page is another incredible resource.

Teen/Young Adult Books

I feel like The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian deserves a special award just for getting banned and challenged on such a routine basis–it’s been on the most-challenged list (in the top ten!) five times since its publication in…2010. (Seriously.) Sherman Alexie keeps getting banned, for reasons that I, as a confirmed pinko, tend to find bizarre. If YA books like Diary aren’t really your thing, you can still contribute to Shitload of Royalties Week chez Alexie, by reading any of his other works. They’re all amazing. (Confirmation here: E, who only reads graphic novels, has read every single book by Alexie, excepting only his new picture book, Thunder Boy, Jr., because he “doesn’t read picture books.”) Have you the desire to read poems about basketball? (I ❤ basketball, by the bye.) He’s got you covered! He’s also got poems about men’s bathrooms! As far as I know, none of those have been challenged, which is kind of odd. But to each their own kryptonite, I guess.

Now, despite its glorious place up at the top of banned and challenged books in the past six years, Diary is definitely not the only frequently challenged YA book; the ALA maintains a list of them here, for your reading pleasure. It’s also not the only amazing diverse young adult book out there. #WeNeedDiverseBooks and the CCBC are, again, really incredible resources here; the CCBC also provides a list of “30 Multicultural Books Every Teen Should Know.” (They’re definitely worth checking out…and, of course, Diary is right there, up at the top of the list!)

Comix and Graphic Novels (of all ages)

So, I wasn’t sure whether to make graphic novels their own category–after all, they often get shelved according to generalized age range, from munchkins to young adult to adult-people. And then I thought, la, what a dumb cunundrum on my part–they are frequently challenged due to their very nature, so of course they should be included as their own thing. If you’re wondering why anyone would ban graphic novels, the ever-amazing Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, or CBLDF, has an amazing set of history and resources available here, as well as a nice brochure available as a pdf here. (Did you know, for instance, about the golden day of comics, before the Code?) The CBLDF maintains a list of banned and challenged comics–they’re definitely worth checking out! Comics and graphic novels also seem to deal a lot in diversity: from Alison Bechdel (you may have heard of her: she’s the one behind the Bechdel Test) to Dong Hwa Kim, from Marjane Satrapi to Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples, from Keiji Nakazawa to Gilbert Hernandez, graphic novelists have this way of delving into diversity, showing it through images as well as words. And boy do they get banned and challenged, a lot.

CBLDF I read banned comics!
And you can too! From CBLDF.

Did you know that we also have diverse superheroes? I’m not talking about aliens, either; see Cindy Moon, aka Silk; see Sam Wilson, Falcon and also Captain America (and, a mi modo de ver, a really amazing Captain America, a superhero for this age and this time); see Miles Morales, aka Spider-Man; Kamala Khan, also known as Ms. MarvelVictor Mancha of the Runaways (which is, by the way, just overall an awesome series); the Green Turtle, aka (in Gene Luen Yang’s amazing Shadow Hero, which you should definitely read) super-nerdy Chinese American Hank Chu.

Adult-People Books, Multiage Books, and Naughty Naughty Classics

Obviously, anyone, from kids to adult people, can read basically any book, as long as they are able to do so. (I, after all, read Titus Andronicus when I was twelve years old. It scared the hell out of me and I didn’t sleep all night. I also haven’t read the damn thing since. Screw you Titus, you suck.) But, lest you think that adult-people books and classics get off easy: they really don’t, hence we are always challenging books by Toni Morrison. We’ve challenged Shakespeare and we really like to challenge The Great Gatsby. Your classics are filthy and you should be ashamed! (Which, to me, says quick go read them allllll!) They are, of course, especially likely to be banned if they cover anything remotely diverse, at all. (I will confess to disappointment: I’ve read quite a number of banned classics and generally don’t find them half so salacious as one might think.)

From ALA.

Most of my diverse-book-finding resources are, alas, for youth literature. However! #WeNeedDiverseBooks is, as always, an excellent place to start. It’s worth trolling the ALA’s lists of frequently challenged and banned classics, since holy cow are a lot of them pertaining to diversity (Toni Morrison? Maya Angelou?). Many of the awards to which WNDB links include books for adults, and, of course, kids’ books are often pretty much amazing reading anyway. This list of frequently challenged authors of color dates way back to the 1990s, but it can be a good place to start.

Now, to Round Off

Now, to finish this off, I have an odd confession: I have pretty much never run into dyslexics like me, in anything. In fact, I first ran into a recognizable dyslexic person when I started reading romance novels, and romance novels remain the place where I have found most of my own kind. Spoiler alert: most of them are guys, and they’re mostly historical (back in the day when they called it word blindness, or just what a dumb kid!, or something)–but they’re still there.

It’s kind of amazing to find people like me, even if they are studmuffin guys with sixpack abs, but it’s also a total mess. As much as those romance authors who have written dyslexics have my eternal gratitude (and are on auto-order, basically), there should be more. We are not so uncommon, we whose neurons aren’t quite right, that we should be represented so seldom, should see ourselves only rarely. I’m like, almost 100% positive that Wylan Van Eck of Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows duology is dyslexic, and I almost screamed when I put those pieces together, I was so excited to “meet” him.

This isn’t enough, this start, but it is amazing, all the same–and, by reading books and recommending books, we can play a part in bringing more diversity to our literature. Let’s celebrate our First Amendment right to read, and give it a shot while we’re at it.

For anyone interested in more information on book banning and challenging in the twenty-first century United States:

#WeNeedDiverseBooks, Where the Hell to Find Them, and Political and Advocacy Issues Surrounding Them

From Chicago Public Library’s Facebook page.

Progenitor of Towers: William Le Baron Jenney and the Skyscraper

The skyline Jenney made possible: Chicago Skyline at Sunrise, by Daniel Schwen. 18 April 2009

Chicago is a city of (architectural) firsts, a city where architecture is a fount of civic pride, where it is, indeed, a spectator sport.1 We’ve got the first of the tall(est) skyscrapers designed by a woman, Jeanne Gang’s spectacular, undulating Aqua;2 we’ll soon have the second, in Gang’s building-to-come, Vista Tower.3 (I can’t even tell you how excited I am. The tallest building conceived and designed by a woman, right here in Chicago!) Before we could get to the tallest building in the world designed by a woman (a title which will, no doubt, constantly shift in the years to come, as more women climb higher in the field), somebody had to invent the skyscraper.

We don’t have Vista yet, so here’s Aqua! Photo by George Showman. From Wikimedia Commons; originally posted to Flickr.

A lot of pieces had to come together for that invention. First of all, we needed to accidentally burn a city down, because there is, quite literally, nothing like it for inspiring all sorts of architectural brilliance (and contortions). Further, we had to burn it down so we realized that it would burn down, and we could have an architect learn how to build fire-proof buildings, which gets ever more important the higher up they go.4 We had to have an economic crash, of course–what would America be without those?–that would drive people to “look to Chicago as their hope,” since we had burned ourselves down and were busily rising from our own ashes–and then we had to have housing for those folks who came to join us, and rebuild with us.We absolutely, positively had to have elevators, because who in the world wants to climb eight or ten or twelve or ninety flights of stairs? It’s more than just this, however: elevators are, in fact, one of the four essential skyscraper criteria:6

  1. Height (this varies, sometimes a lot, by source–we’ll just go with really tall)7
  2. Metal skeleton frame
  3. Vertical transit (aka elevators)
  4. Fireproof.

And, voilà. If it’s missing any one of these, it isn’t actually a skyscraper.

The Chicago Tribune, 11 October 1871. Wikimedia Commons.

Okay, so we’ve got our criteria. We’ve burned down a city, leaving thousands of folks homeless (and destitute), and hundreds dead. We’re industrious, because that is kind of our thing, and so we’re already busily rebuilding–the hell with a fire, time to raise a second city, better than the first! And we’ve got tons of people coming our way, since we’re rebuilding and we must have jobs. This is clearly great, but we’ve gotta put people somewhere, hence extra apartment buildings. We’re building up, since we kinda need space–though it should be noted that we are immensely lucky: our lots are bigger by far than New York City’s, giving our skyline an entirely different vibe, and enabling all our atmospheric alleys.

Jenney, severely cropped. Wikimedia Commons.

The hero of this particular story–the first guy to build the first real skyscraper, the progenitor, as it were, of Gang’s Aqua and her Vista–is one William Le Baron Jenney, from back in the day when one had a two-word middle name just cuz. Jenney was kind of our hero (or at least one of them–we all adored Goldberg for standing up to nasty old Meis van der Rohe, and Wight for coming up with fireproofing, and a hundred others), back in architecture history. He paved the way, making it possible for us to go up, and up, and up again.

Garfield Park, 2013. By Wikipedian peterson.jon. Wikimedia Commons.

Jenney’s a pretty cool guy, actually. He wasn’t just the progenitor of skyscrapers, though one may think that is quite enough for the average mortal to take as an epitaph; instead, he was also a landscape architect, one who learned his trade at school (École Centrale  des Arts et Manufacutres, today known as the École Central de Paris) and honed it in the bloody, brutal battlefields of the American Civil War. He apparently thought our good Chicago prairie sucked (so does my mother; obviously I beg to disagree), but nonetheless created the original designs for the West Parks.9 (Unfortunately, the designs weren’t completely followed–there are always budget crises in Chicago.10) Jenney didn’t design in a vacuum: he appealed to, and got advice from, Fredrick Law Olmsted, the greatest contemporary (at the time) American  landscape architect.11

The Home Insurance Building, sometime after 1884. Photo by the Chicago Architectural Photography Company. Wikimedia Commons.

But, as nice as Central Park (aka Garfield Park, because we are NOT New York, just fyi) is, there’s a reason Jenney is the skyscraper guy. It’s a bittersweet title: we’ve torn down so many of his buildings, destroying our legacy faster even than it goes up. Jenney’s first real skyscraper (well, okay, it wasn’t very tall by today’s standards–merely a highrise, according to Emporis) was the Home Insurance Building, which once stood “at the northeast corner of LaSalle and Adams” and was not only the first building to meet all our criteria but was, indeed, the first to be called a skyscraper, anywhere.12 It has, as my notes remind me, a metal skeleton; a terracotta exoskeleton, making it fireproof; (at the time) fabulous height, rising 10 and soon after 12 stories; and vertical transit–all coming together to form the world’s first skyscraper. Nearly everything, from the elevators to the metal skeleton, was new technology. It was a brave new building for a city rising from its own ashes…and we tore it down in 1931.

Leiter I Building, 1963. (Demolished 1972.) Photo from the Historic American Buildings Survey, by Cervin Robinson. Wikimedia Commons.

Obviously I have strong feelings about historic preservation. However, as exciting as the Home Insurance Building was, it fell between historic cracks, with elements of load-bearing walls as well as an iron skeleton. Indeed, he would build skyscrapers later that would fall more truly into the iron-skeletoned buildings of the future, helping to forge what we all know today as the Chicago School of Architecture. (It’s the best and only school of architecture, clearly.)

Leiter II Building, by Zol87Wikimedia Commons.

The Second Leiter Building marks what Gerald Larson calls “the beginning of the true high point of Jenney’s practice,” an era in which Jenney, fully at the helm of his architecture firm, was both constructing a lot of buildings and innovating with each one.13 The Chicago School, in which form always follows function, was born, and reaching higher with each day. One simple example of Jenney’s evolution as an architect lies in the buildings above, Leiters I and II. Leiter I is almost a skyscraper…but not quite. It had, amazingly, wooden floors, and, as my notes tell me, was “only half fireproofed,” and thus “only three and a half parts skyscraper.”14 While you can’t visit the wood-floored Leiter I, Leiter II is still there, a part of Robert Morris College. It’s all the way fireproof, state of the art nineteenth-century technology which influences us to this day. (I resent the absence of Leiter I, but that is another issue, for another day.)

Ludington Building, 2007. Photo by TonyTheTiger, cropped by Beyond My KenWikimedia Commons.

A number of Jenney’s surviving buildings are now, perhaps appropriately, home to colleges and universities, many of them fundamentally arts-focused. (I have no idea what a guy who is sometimes considered more engineer than architect would think of this, but I guess I don’t particularly care.) The Ludington Building, above, is now one of a multitude of buildings which comprise Columbia College Chicago. Unlike so many of Jenney’s Chicago buildings, the Ludington has had pretty good luck in surviving, perhaps because the original family owned it until the ’60s. Columbia College is, rightfully, very proud of the building. I could point out a lot of things I like about it, and a lot of revolutionary things–it’s all terracotta wrapped! it’s beautiful! look at the atmospheric fire escapes! look at those amazing Chicago School windows!–but I feel like it can rather well speak for itself.

39 South LaSalle (aka New York Life Insurance Buliding–he had a thing for insurance I guess). photo by TonyTheTiger, cropped by Beyond My Ken, and housed on Wikimedia Commons.

The building above is another tenacious survivor. The New York Life Insurance Building was, at the time of its construction, super-duper techy and new-fangled, the first of its kind entirely “supported by an internal skeleton of metal” in place of those thick load-bearing walls of the past. It, like so many others, has come in danger of the wrecking ball, but, for now, it’s safe: following a well-reviewed renovation, bringing out the inherent beauty of the structure itself, it is now the Gray Hotel. You, too, can go for a drink in an old Jenney building, and look at the structure while you do. (If you have the moolah you can also go for a stay in the hotel.)

The Manhattan Building, on the corner. 2006 photo by JeremyAWikimedia Commons.

Both City of the Century and The Great Builders point to the building in the photo above, the Manhattan, at the corner of Congress and Dearborn, as Jenney’s definitive crowning glory, the moment all the pieces he’d been putting into place came resoundingly together.15 I will confess that the evidently revolutionary Manhattan Building has been a part of the backdrop of my life for as long as I can remember–there used to be instrument shops in one of the buildings next to it, and it’s quite near the Harold Washington Library. Like many of the old Chicago School buildings, it holds its age elegantly, and continues to serve its public, a gracious, light-filled old highrise that once was a skyscraper.

Manhattan Building. 2010 photo by J. CrockerWikimedia Commons.

Now, some folks dispute Jenney’s honorable stance as the father of the (American) skyscraper. They offer his glory to other people, even other cities.16 Sullivan, the ornamentation half of Adler & Sullivan, claimed that Jenney wasn’t an architect at all, but rather an engineer,17 which has always seemed to me a singularly unpleasant–and indeed flagrantly inaccurate–assessment of Jenney’s skill. (Donald Miller, in City of the Century, argues that Jenney was “one of the outstanding innovators in the history of building technology,” a man who believed beauty flowed through the structure itself–which seems to me an excellent judgement of Jenney’s importance to modern architecture.) Maybe Sullivan was jealous? He was not, after all, half the engineer that either Jenney or his partner Dankmar Adler were. The guy was indeed an engineer, as many a good architect is; he was also an architect. One can, after all, be both.

19 South LaSalle. 2012 photo by TonyTheTigerWikimedia Commons.

But Jenney was more than simply a brilliant engineer and architect, or even a founding father of the Chicago School of Architecture. Instead, he mentored the great architects of Chicago, including Daniel Burnham, the future Holabird & Roche, and the evidently ungrateful Louis Sullivan.18 He partook of the culture of Chicago, from high culture to pop culture and encouraged others to do the same,19 a decision which, I do not doubt, better enabled him–and the architects of the Chicago School–to design for their city’s unique needs. As Miller20 tells us, none other than the great Daniel Burnham laid credit for those great feats of fireproofed engineering and art at Jenney’s feet. Jenney’s mentorship of the great Chicago School architects makes him well and truly the progenitor of towers, for they went on to build the great skyscrapers that would enable ever taller, grander skyscrapers.

Without William Le Baron Jenney and the men he mentored, our skyline would be a whole lot different. Who knows? Without him, we might never have reached Aqua, or Vista. And so, today, on the anniversary of Jenney’s birth, let us celebrate his mastery by enjoying our skyline–and by working towards preservation of our historic architecture, our great gift to the world.

Horticultural Building

Jenney’s long-gone Horticultural Building, at the World’s Columbia Exposition. Photo by William Henry Jackson. Image from the Field Museum’s archival collection. Housed on Flickr.

1 Who says this? Well, lots of people say it! Blair Kamin, our Pulitzer-winning architecture critic, is the one who comes first to mindCraine’s Chicago Business says it; and so does The Unofficial Guide to Chicago. It is, in short, a part of the fabric of our communal civic soul.
2 When it was built, Aqua was the tallest skyscraper designed by a woman. It is discussed in The Guardian and The New Yorker, among others.
3 Vista Tower is currently in the construction phase. It is exciting in a hundred and one ways, about which I will write later; in the meantime, the following articles are excellent sources of information about the project (and how exciting it is):

It’s also worth noting that 1 World Trade Center’s technical director is a woman.

4 That architect was a guy named Peter Bonnett Wight, about whom we learned lots in “Origins of Commercial and Civic Architecture” (Spring 2009) and “Origins of Modern Architecture” (Fall 2008), both at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, both taught by the excellent Tim Wittman. The Ryerson & Burnham Libraries at the Art Institute of Chicago have Wight’s archive, for those interested.
5 This sounds wild, but it 100% happened.
6 This list is drawn from my notes from “Origins of Modern Architecture” and “Origins of Commercial and Civic Architecture.”
7 So, there is a surprisingly non-standardized definition of this whole height thing out there, which is why I’ve gone with “really tall,” which, obviously, is essentially meaningless. I have several written down, but they aren’t really all that tall; I’d say they fit early skyscraper definitions, but not modern ones. Emporis, which is apparently an architectural data mining firm, says a skyscraper must be “at least 100 meters,” so if you want a number, go with that.
8 According to my notes from “Origins of Modern Architecture” on 26 November 2008, the average Manhattan lot is only 20×80, while in Chicago it’s 25×125. (My professor said the Dutch didn’t know how to handle space, but the Brits and the Germans, who were settling Chicago, did. This may even have some truth to it.) This not only facilitates our skyline and our alleys but, thanks to said alleys, offers light from the back as well as the front.
9 Reuben M. Rainey, “William Le Baron Jenney and Chicago’s West Parks: From Prairies to Pleasure-Grounds,” 58-60.
10 The Chicago Park District, The City in a Garden: A Photographic History of Chicago’s Parks: West Side Park System: 1869-1900.
11 Rainey, “William Le Baron Jenney,” 62-65.
12 See this excerpt from Verbivore’s Feast.
13 Gerald R. Larson, “William Le Baron Jenney,” 138-140.
14 “Origins of Commercial and Civic Architecture,” Tim Wittman, 23 March 2009.
15 Larson, 138-139; Miller, 335.
16 In City of the Century, Donald Miller argues that the glory probably does belong, in large part, with Jenney, who synthesized and mentored the skyscraper into being (341-347). Larson isn’t so sure (136-138). I’m going with Miller and with my architecture history notes (Tim Wittman, 2008-09); this may be largely chauvinistic pride in my city, but I’m sticking with it.
17 Miller 336; Weingardt, 61.
18 Miller, 336, 342-346; Pacyga, 132-133.
19 Miller, 336.
20 Miller, 344.


Bibliography and More Reading

Haden, Erik. “William Le Baron Jenney.” Article available via the Wayback Machine.

Larson, Gerald R. “William Le Baron Jenney: Developed Chicago’s Distrinctive Skyscrapers, 1832-1907.” In The Great Builders, ed. Kenneth Powell. London: Thames & Hudson, 2011.

Leiter I Building, from Historic American Buildings Survey.

Miller, Donald L. City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America. 1996. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003.

Pacyga, Dominic A. Chicago: A Biography. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Plan of Chicago: A Regional Legacy. Available as a pdf.

Powell, Kenneth, editor. The Great Builders. London: Thames & Hudson, 2011.

Reuben M. Rainey, “William Le Baron Jenney and Chicago’s West Parks: From Prairies to Pleasure Grounds.” In Midwest Landscape Architecture, ed. William H. Tishler, 57-79. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

Tischler, William H., editor. Midwest Landscape Architecture. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

Weingardt, Richard G. “William Le Baron Jenney and Tung-Yen Lin.” Leadership and Management in Engineering 3(1) (2003): 61-63. pdf.

Showing History: or, [Yes, There Really Were] Records Before the Spanish Came

Scribes at work: “Codex-Style Vessel with Two Scenes of Pawahtun Instructing Scribes; c. A.D. 550–950; Possibly Mexico or Guatemala, Maya culture, Late Classic period (A.D. 600–900).” Image by FA2010, 2009. Wikimedia Commons.

We peoples of letters have a knack for believe that we, and only we, are capable of creating literature, of composing epics, of recording our histories. We are the greatest at convincing ourselves that our way–only our way!–is The Way to remember stuff, and so we wander around in public telling our best bros that there were no records then because they didn’t record stuff back in the day, don’t’cha know, that had to wait for the Spaniards, and then somebody hears us and tell us we’re wrong and should just boil in our wrongness while we’re at it. (In case it isn’t clear, I was the latter, recently.)

What do we do when we hear wrongness? We fight, just as Captain America says. From Giphy.

But the thing is, there are so many ways to remember, and memory itself–whether individual or collective–is such a complicated, multifaceted thing. And, finally, just because we can’t read it doesn’t mean those who came before us did not leave written records behind. In many cases, they actually did. This is, indeed, quite flagrantly true through pre-contact Latin America, where scribes and artists were busily recording the past and plenty of folks were actually literate. It is us who cannot read what’s been left behind, not them who did not record it.

The great Aztec Piedra del Sol. Photo by Anagoria, 2013. Wikimedia Commons.

My MA advisor, who happens to be a genius, started out many a class in colonial Spanish-American literature with the piece above, the great, glorious Aztec Piedra del Sol, or Sun Calendar. This, she would say, emphatically (and in Spanish), this is literature! (It should be pointed out that really old literature–the sort of stuff I adore–is a fascinating mix of literature, art, history, and anthropology/sociology, anyway.) Moreover, the Piedra del Sol is just one of many such records, living memories carved in stone for the world to see, here and forever, amen. Gordon Brotherston, in “America and the Colonizer Question: Two Formative Statements from Early Mexico,” writes of a system of writing–tlacuilolli–intricately tied, after the destruction of treasure troves of books, to the stone calendars on which we see it today, and of American scientific and cyclical knowledge far surpassing that of the invading Europeans.1 Imagine: one comes planning to be a god in a strange land, and one discovers that actually one’s cherished technology is pretty backwards, and one’s native land is kind of grubby and poorly planned, compared to these great cities of the Americas. Awkward, no?2

Mexico-3719

For your convenient heart enemy-heart-storing, self-promoting needs: Aztec Stone of Tizoc. Photo by Dennis Jarvis, 2007. Flickr.

Similarly, Camilla Townsend, in the journal Ethnohistory, writes that the Nahuat-speakers “of central Mexico left for posterity a deeper trove of written records than any other indigenous group in the Americas”3–a statement which might be somewhat hyperbolic, indeed (many indigenous people had an extensive literary output), but which nonetheless makes a strong case for una gente letrada–a literate people–long before the coming of the Spaniards and their westernized alphabet. The giant Stone of Tizoc, pictured above, is a dual-purpose monument: it could store the hearts of one’s enemies (or sacrificial victims), and it served as a giant monument to Tizoc, the guy who commissioned it. Unfortunately for good ol’ Tizoc, he wasn’t the world’s greatest military mind, and was only on the throne for a short time. (Poor dude was only the Lord of Tenochtitlán for like five years, which was, I think, unprecedented.) Regardless of his prowess (or lack thereof), Tizoc left us another brilliant piece of Mesoamerican, pre-contact literary output, if we can but read what he’s had written. Should we then deny the Aztec their literature, their records, their histories, simply because we can’t read? Would that not be like the child-me, illiterate, insisting that my favorite writers hadn’t actually put down words at all?

Illustration of the “One Flower” Ceremony from the great Florentine Codex. Wikimedia Commons.

Now, so far I have covered the Mexica people, also known (today) as the Aztec. There’s a reason for this: the folks I overheard were making fun of Aztec records, and Aztec gods. (Now, I don’t know about you, but I make a point not to make fun of gods who want that much blood in tribute. Besides, they are not my gods and thus I have no right to mock.) And, the thing is, the Aztec Empire did leave behind records–records which they continued to expand following the coming of the Spaniards, when they salvaged Spanish writing systems to tell their own stories, as much their way as possible. But they were not, by a long shot, the only literature people of what became (and no longer is) Spanish America.

“Panel 3 from Cancuen, Guatemala, representing king T’ah ‘ak’ Cha’an.” Photo by Authenticmaya~commonswiki, 2005. Wikimedia Commons.

I learned rather the hard way–that is, by reading popular stuff and listening to people in large groups–that a lot of people seem to think the Maya Civilization disappeared, sinking into nothingness long before the arrival of the Spaniards. Buena gente, I am here to tell you that this is flagrant and offensive nonsense. Just because Teotihuacán fell does not mean that the Maya, too, disappeared into the jungle. In fact, the Maya are still here today. The Maya left us something more than simply vast and advanced cities and magnificent sculptures and living languages and people, however: they left us written records. Lots of written records.

Six sheets of the Mayan Dresden Codex, c. 1200. Wikimedia Commons.

The Maya were, by and large, a literate people. Matthew Restall, placing them among “the most literate native societies,” writes that literacy levels among the Maya and the European conqustadores were actually fairly similar, as most were “semiliterate,” while some–likely nobility and, of course, scribes–were “fully literate,” and others “fully illiterate.”4 In short, the Maya, as a cultured people, were largely able to read and write–at least a little. And, as evidenced by the (small) fragment of the 13th-century Dresden Codex, above, they were quite able to keep their own written records. I would, myself, argue that if we cannot trust documents left us by the Maya, then we certainly cannot trust those of the conquistadores, who included bros like Francisco Pizarro, the illiterate son of a pig farmer. (I don’t know why this stuck with me quite so much–I think I actually learned it in my first Latin American history class, way back when in like 2006 or 2007, but there you go. It’s the little things, apparently.)

Stucco frieze from Placeres, Campeche. Photo by Wolfgang Sauber, 2008. Wikimedia Commons.

The Maya evidently placed great importance upon scribes–no doubt they knew, just as well as anyone else, that history is written by the victors, but that the vanquished, as long as they can write, will tell their own stories differently. In his article “Broken Fingers: Classic Maya Scribe Capture and Policy Consolidation,” Kevin Johnston argues that Maya rulers made a concentrated effort to break captured scribes’ hands, the tools of their trade–they were, he posits, dangerous to a victorious king’s ability to twist historical narrative to suit his needs, and to celebrate his victories.Smashing a scribe’s hands seems quite horrific, yet in truth, throughout history, across continents, victorious lords have done their best to silence the pens of the opposition. Evidently the Maya agreed that the pen could be mightier than the blade, and took pains to ensure that their versions of history would be the ones to survive.

Stele 51 from Calakmul. Photo by Thelmadatter, 2008. Wikimedia Commons.

Much of the Maya records that survive today are, much like those of the great kings of Asyrria and Babylon, stelae, set in stone for posterity. We would no doubt have more books–codices or otherwise–were it not for, as Brotherston reminds us, the wholesale burning of “books in New Spain and quipus in Peru”6–wanton destruction of a peoples’ history and knowledge, on a far grander scale than the broken fingers of vanquished scribes. Yet the Maya–and the people we call Inca, as well as the Mexica (or Aztec)–continued to keep their records, their own way. Part of this is simple: it’s kind of hard to burn stone monuments, although the Spaniards definitely tried when they pulled down Tenochtitlán, using its monumental stones to build Mexico City. But indigenous literacies carried on in other ways, too. In fact, Judith Maxwell argues that the highland Maya preserved their language and pictorial alphabet through such mediums as textile art–and, thus, the very clothing they wore.7 The Spaniards may have come, may have imposed their systems and their ways upon the people in the Americas–but yet those old ways were, and are, preserved, still a living part of Mayan culture today.

Paris Codex. Wikimedia Commons.

I have barely touched upon the surface of literacies and of record-keeping in precontact Latin America, here–and I have focused largely, if not exclusively, on the Aztec and the Maya, though they were hardly the only people to have maintained their own records before the violent coming of Europeans. Had those Europeans cared at all about the histories of the places they were determined to commandeer, or the people they were trying to vanquish (always with the help of indigenous allies–divide and conquer is a time-honored, and honed, technique), we’d have even more records. The Olmec were leaving written records in 900 BCE, if not earlier.

Sheet from the Codex Mendoza. Wikimedia Commons.

Nor did the Aztec or the Maya stop recording their own histories merely because another empire rolled in on tides of blood. Instead, despite the book-burnings (a timely issue, as we approach Banned Book Week!), scribes kept right on scribing, using whatever alphabets were most helpful at the time. The age of the great Aztec codices was only beginning. The Quechua nobleman Felipe Guamán Poma de Ayala would pen his mighty letter Nueva Crónica y Buen Gobierno, written partially in Spanish and partially in Quechua, and send it off to the king (it never got there, but it did end up in Denmark! And they helpfully put it all online). And, later, el Inca Garcilaso de la Vega would write his own chronicle, Comentarios Reales de los Incas, which I’m pretty sure doesn’t have a single picture. (At any rate, all I can remember are the words, of which there are definitely plenty.)

An “Aymara weaver,” depicted by Guamán Poma de Ayala. Wikimedia Commons.

Records of the before-the-conquest abound. Records of the before-and-the-after also abound, both in words and in images, and, as José Rabasa reminds us, we must work to remember the importance of “visual communication of iconic script”8–after all, memories, and records, are transmitted in many ways, and our Latin alphabet and Islamic numerals are hardly the only ways to do so. It is to our communal shame that we people of alphabet-letters have long held ourselves as superior, often going so far as to consider other ways and methods of record-keeping as markers of barbarism.9 (I’d like to believe the whole civilización y barbarie thing went out with Sarmiento, but that is definitely not the case.)

First page of the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, c. 15th century. Wikimedia Commons.

Writing–using both Latinized and pictorial alphabets–became, following the Conquest, a space of resistance, a place to claim one’s heritage and one’s culture, and to transmit one’s own histories to the future, in spite of the colonizers’ attempts to curtail such activities. Brotherston points out that though we more often think of the Martís and the Bilbaos (he recommends also thinking of the Silkos), yet “colonizing Europe was challenged intellectually in America” from the very beginnings of the conquest.10 Similarly, throughout “Thinking Europe in Indian Categories” Rabasa writes of resistance to dominance through written and pictorial records.11

Doña Marina/La Malinche and Hernán Cortés lead the way in this page from the Codex AzcatitlanWikimedia Commons.

From stelae to temples, from sculptures to codices, the Maya and Aztec have left us a plethora of records. People were recording their histories a long time before Spain stumbled across the Americas, and they kept right on recording it after the Spanish arrived in their world. (For it was their world, not Spain’s.) If we don’t know how to read it, that’s on us,12 not them.

Aztec warriors depicted in the Florentine Codex. Wikimedia Commons.

1 Brotherston, 24-26.
2 The great Peruvian theorist Aníbal Quijano argues that this is precisely why the (largely, but not entirely) European conquistadores invented the concept of race.
3 Townsend, 625.
4 Restall, 37.
5 Johnston, 375-379.
6 Brotherston, 25.
7 Maxwell, 553, 556-557.
8 Rabasa, 46.
9 Restall, 92; Rabasa, 46, 51.
10 Brotherston, 42.
11 Rabasa, 43-76.
12 I am very glad to report that work is ongoing on fully deciphering Nahuatl texts, as discussed by Alfonso Lacadena in this 2008 article (pdf).


Bibliographies/Suggested Reading

Ayala, Guamán Poma de. Nueva crónica y buen gobierno, available thanks to the  Royal Library in Denmark.

Bleichmar, Daniela. “History in Pictures: Translating the Codex Mendoza.” Art History 38:4 (2015), 682-701. DOI:10.1111/1467-8365.12175

Columbus, de las Casas, and the Undiscoverable Land.

Florentine Codex, available here.

For a Few More Days: Art from the Viceroyalty of Peru

Johnston, Kevin J. “Broken Fingers: Classic Maya Scribe Capture and Policy Consolidation.” Antiquity 75 (2000), 373-381. DOI: 10.1017/S0003598X00061020.

Lacadena, Alfonso. “Regional Scribal Traditions: Methodological Implications for Decipherment of Nahuatl Writing.” The Pari Journal 8:4 (2008): 1-22. PDF.

León-Portilla, Miguel, ed., & Miguel León-Portilla y Ángel María Garibay K., traductores. Visión de los vencidos: Relaciones indígenas de la conquista. México, D.F.: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 2008.

Léon-Portilla, Miguel, ed.; Miguel Léon-Portilla y Ángel María Garibay K., traductores; Lysander Kemp, translator. The Broken Spears. (note: I have never read the English translation, your mileage may vary but it’s very much worth a shot.)

Maxwell, Judith M. “Change in Literacy and Literature in Highland Guatemala, Precontact to Present.” Ethnohistory 62:3 (2015), 553-572. DOI:10.1215/00141801-2890234.

Moraña, Mabel, Enrique Dussel, and Carlos A. Jáuregui, eds. Coloniality at Large: Latin America and the Postcolonial Debate. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2008.

Quijano, Aníbal. “Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism, and Social Classification.” Coloniality at Large, edited by Mabel Moraña, Enrique Dissel, and Carlos A. Jáuregui, 2008, 181-224.

Rabasa, José. “Thinking Europe in Indian Categories, or ‘Tell Me the Story of How I Conquered You.'” Coloniality at Large, edited by Mabel Moraña, Enrique Dissel, and Carlos A. Jáuregui, 2008, 43-76.

Restall, Matthew. Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest. London: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Townsend, Camilla. “Glimpsing Native American Historiography: The Cellular Principal in Sixteenth-Century Nahautl Annals.” Ethnohistory 56:4 (2009), 625-650. DOI 10.1215/00141801-2009-024

The sacred calendar from the Codex Borbonicus, post-conquest Aztec. Wikimedia Commons.

Hyde Park, in Black and White and Grit

On this anniversary of the day France and Daguerre gave away the technology for the Daguerrotype, I have gone back into my undergrad years to my final project. I worked with a used Canon Rebel EOS from the one and only Central Camera, on Wabash under the (atmospheric) tracks. I  loved it; I love it now: I love film work rather passionately. At this point, however, I have neither access to, nor space to create my own, darkroom; I’m hopeful that I will eventually be able to save up for a digital SLR, but even should I splurge on monthly Photoshop fees (and let’s face it: I probably would), it simply won’t be the same. There is an impossible beauty, really, in knowing that one’s shots are so limited, and that one must think, carefully, before setting the aperture and the shutter speed. It is about so much more than angling in and pushing a button.

In some ways, this is probably an exercise in nostalgia: I grew up in Hyde Park, a few buildings away from Stagg Field, two city blocks away from the emergency rooms. It wasn’t a perfect place, by a long shot, but it was an amazing space to be a kid. In many ways, it’s also a love song to a vanishing neighborhood. My own neighborhood is gone now, torn down to make way for new science buildings: there are no greystones, no 1920s apartment buildings, no kids racing down the block to round up the crew and look in office windows. It feels, to me, like a spectral trip down a ghost-town’s lanes, and, hardest of all, precious few of the students prowling what used to be a neighborhood have any idea that it was ever something else.

So, these are film photographs, scanned; there are a few development errors. I pushed my camera as hard as I could here, going for a rough-edged look inspired by Robert Frank’s The Americansit being better to push aperture and shutter speed than to accidentally boil the film. (Someone did that to me once; it was kind of awful but I ended up loving the look.) But, enough with words: let the images speak for themselves, as I had originally intended.

1
Entering Obama’s neighborhood.
2
South Drexel: What they left behind.

 

3
Kent Chemical Laboratory
4
57th Street Friends Meeting Peace Pole

 

5
Booth School of Business
6
Inside, across, and through
7
International House flyer, basement, Ida Noyes Hall.
8
Women’s bathroom, Mandel Hall.
9
Bulletin board, Quadrangles.
10
Cloisters, Divinity School.
11
Rockefeller Memorial Chapel: Rose window, outside.
12
Rockefeller Chapel
13
Rockefeller Chapel
14
Rockefeller Chapel: Rose window and pipe organ.

 

Glories of Graffiti (part the first)

This summer has been an intense one for me, filled with changes and with new prospects as well as unrelenting streams of (often bad) news, spiced by a record-smashing, barrier-breaking Olympics (with some unbelievably sexist coverage of female athletes, because of course). It’s been, perhaps, a little much sometimes–and so I’ve delved back into my treasure trove of graffiti , and done a shoddy job of curating some of my favorites.

Mostly they’re bright. Or funny. Or vulgar. Or all of the above. And, occasionally, it’s actually rather sweet.

Words, Words, Words

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EGAD! in Pittsburgh.

This is a pretty terrible photo, and, alas, I don’t have PhotoShop, so it will remain lousy for a bit. Nonetheless, it is EGAD!, from a mailbox on a hill in a lovely Pittsburgh neighborhood. It is about as simple as one can possibly get, and I love it so much. There’s something really hilarious about writing EGAD! as one’s tag, I think–especially with such a marvelous typeface. You do you, tagger of EGAD!s.

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A dumpster, Urbana. 2015.

I have no idea if the “GO…LIKE NOW” dumpster still lives behind the Foreign Language Building and the Smith Memorial Auditorium in Urbana, on the University of Illinois campus; it did, however, live there pretty much the entire time that I did. (I last saw it when last I was in town, in August of 2015.) It’s a giant, rusty, and generally full dumpster: nothing special there. But the graffiti, much of which appears to have been stenciled (“zen” is definitely freehand, “rest” might be as well), took time and care and makes it unique. It’s very much a part of my grad school memories: and here is the dumpster I walked past every day, y’all!

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Outside Illini Union, Champaign, Illinois. 2015.

It’s chalk, man. Except it definitely wasn’t written with chalk, which makes it even funnier. (I guess I don’t ask for much, but I always found it hilarious.)

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Women’s bathroom, Foreign Language Building, Urbana, Illinois.

This is pretty much quintessential women’s bathroom graffiti. Maybe it says something good about us, that our graffiti is so often, uh, positive? (I mean, this is super hackneyed and corny, but still.) Several stalls also bear long communal love letters to unknown girls who’ve written about the tragedies of their lives, ranging from desperate loneliness to academic issues. (It’s incredible, what folks write, usually in sharpie, on the walls of a toilet stall.) The responses are almost always sweet, and kind; some are religious, most are not, but almost all are attempting to buck up that unknown girl, and give her a reason to stick around a while. I guess I’ll choose to see that as something good about us.

 

Colors and Flowers and Faces

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Above. On Mathews in Urbana, near the old Natural History building.
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Below. On Mathews in Urbana, near the old Natural History building.

I don’t even know what this is, but these faces! How can anyone not be delighted to see them? I am ever so grateful to whatever anonymous street artist decided to make Mathews a whole lot happier with their art.

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On the “dead mall,” Urbana, Illinois. July 2015.

I have no idea what the above is. A piece of toast with a face? A contemporary Lascaux? Whatever it is, it’s a pretty great splash of color on the back of a mall whose future is, now, uncertain.

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Lighthouse in Waukegan Harbor. Waukegan, Illinois.

The blast of aqua and turquoise here–seen on Christmas Day, 2015, because obviously this is the time to walk out into Lake Michigan to see a lighthouse–is only a tiny piece of the graffiti lining the walkway and limning the lighthouse itself. The graffiti is, as befits Waukegan (where, according to the U.S. Census, 54.2 per cent of people speak a language other than English at home), bi- or tri-lingual, largely Spanish, English, and Spanglish. This piece probably says something, but I haven’t a clue; I just like the colors.

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Near Illini Union, Urbana, Illinois. Summer 2015.

I guess the flowers above are graffiti. I don’t really know. In an oasis of concrete and construction they stand out, delicate and beautiful and believable: a small splash of beauty in the midst of chaos.

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Urbana, Illinois (I think).

I think this guy hangs at Krannert Center, although I don’t remember for sure. I still wonder if “WF” is someone’s initials or if it’s a semi-polite version of the semi-polite WTF acronym. It’s on a campus, so I figure it could be pretty much anything.

Carved into Café Tables (in Urbana)

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Café, Urbana, Illinois

think the above platitude lives–or maybe lived–carved into a table at the Espresso Royale at Goodwin and Oregon, just across the street from the magnificent Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. It’s

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Café. Urbana, Illinois

Likely also at Espresso

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Espresso Royale, Goodwin and Oregon, Urbana

This one is definitely a matter of opinion (me, I loved them all)–but it’s also definitely hilarious.

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Café, Urbana, Illinois

Terribly sad robot here is terribly sad, alas. 😦 I think it’s also from ’12…although that may have been put there to throw us all for a loop. This one is also likely from the same table as ESPRESSO TRUMPS PARADISO, above…but, since I’m not positive, I’ll leave it sans location.

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Café, Urbana

Same table, same location. This coffee shop is right across the street from the performing arts center, and right in the midst of a large science sector. The graffiti reflects, as it were, both cultures. Maybe that’s part of the reason why I felt so at home there.

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Café, Urbana, Illinois

I love this one so much. I wonder who carved the first bit into the table: did they mean it? (I mean, I assume they weren’t being sarcastic?) Did they hope to spread the good word by way of graffiti on a café table in a science quad? And who was the second person? I fancy they were a scientist, or an engineer, but they may have been an actor, or a musician, or a computer scientist, or a mathematician. (It is also pretty reminiscent of the good old vulgar graffiti of Pompeii, discussed by PompeianaOrbilatthe Telegraph,  Mental Floss, and The Heavy, among other places.) We’ve always been gleefully vulgar in our illicit writing (and etching and drawing), apparently.

Freight Trains: Or, Coming Eventually

My area is heavily frequented by freight trains, hauling their cargo to and from and through Chicago, itself dotted with depots and piers: husky, broad-shouldered brawler of a city that it is, heavy freight trains fit right in. The neighborhood in which I grew up, as well as the suburb in which I currently live, are both fortunate enough to have overpasses, so any train-watching we do is entirely voluntary. However, most of the ‘hoods around us, from South Shore to Thornton, South Holland to Chatham, aren’t as fortunate. And, since I frequent those neighborhoods (and towns) as well, I do a lot of involuntary train-watching, too. Literally the only high point of involuntary freight train watching? It’s the graffiti, helpfully added by unknown street artists to brighten our gray freight-train filled days.

And so, one of these days, when I’ve collected enough, there will be a post of transit-related graffiti, and it will likely center on trains.