by Emmett R Smith
TO-DAY, On Mankato History This Month [The following text was utilised in the pre-recorded broadcast, to be aired on KMSU-89.7 FM at 10 AM, Monday, 6 November 2006, in Mankato, MN, and livestreamed at kmsu.org — BW], we would wish to speak of the massacre of our architectural heritage, here at home in our own old Mankato.
LET Me begin by asking you, our hearers, please, to cast your thoughts across the miles, to the wonderful old homes and business-buildings of New Ulm, Minnesota. Or, if the old German city on the upper Minnesota is not to your taste, only behold then for a moment in your mind’s eye the lovely presbyterian vistas of Northfield, away northeast from us….
ARE These not wonderful scenes?
WHATEVER Did they — the business-people, the local politicians, the burgeoning city-managerial class of all the post-WW II decades — manage in those not-far-off places to get so right? And, by right I mean in not only preserving, but indeed in living so beautifully and so well, in those wonderful old animated buildings, all of them so full of soul and beauty, and — good human sense?
AND, However did we mis-manage matters so? Professionally and invincibly convicted in our own Mankato popular minds, of the arbitrary superiority of any academic credential, to “mere” incidental emotion and old-time feeling, however did we go so badly wrong?
THE Reasons are many, and they do not all mean that people for the past forty-some years were all fools, at least not by their own momentary lights and temporary best concerns — but, the result is most charitably to be described as, well…just disastrous.
NOW, I do not mean tell you that Mr William Bassett and all of his succeeding ilk were, or are, knaves and fools. I have never heard or read a single thing (except for the occasional disgruntled Free Press editor-letter) to suggest that this is so — and, Mr Bassett in his every utterance gave fine proof of his passion and regard for this, his adopted place.
BUT His tragedy was the tragedy of every well-trained young man and women beginning their public-service careers in the early 1960s — with the death of President Kennedy and L B Johnson’s no-doubt-large-hearted subsidy of everyone and everything, the erstwhile young city improver and redesigner and dreamer was transmogrified into a glorified mere — grant-writer!
AND, The mandates and subsidies were ever-shifting — quicksand indeed, upon which to try to erect any permanent new increments in building. Or, to realise any fine truly longterm ends at all….
THE Whole urban-renewal story in downtown Mankato in the late 1960s is a microcosm of all of the problems the historian confronts in the problem of late-historical corruption, in any period:
TOO Much money from outside a local economy raised the normal sorts of corruption endemic in any human community to a new order of magnitude, it fed the usual unwise “big ideas,” and it resulted in a precipitous shift in local power-arrangements which resulted in misunderstanding, unclear thinking, confusion of aim — and, results more-or-less wholly other than intended by anyone.
BUILDINGS Were pulled down wholesale, “preservation” actually was honored in a token cameo-mall on South Front Street, with some enclosed (and thus protected) old business-fronts — and, because too much money at once allowed too much to be undertaken at once, all at once an out-of-town builder arrived on the scene and, in effect, removed the city commercial-center to the unregulated farmlands atop of the eastern bluffs of the old city, namely the “Madison East” shopping-mall:
IT Was exactly like a small boy in his mother’s grocery-trolley reaching and pulling out the bottom-most can of peas from a pyramid display of canned goods, at the grocer’s!
IN Short order, downtown became a desert inhabited by the wandering clientized, “on” Social Security and living in subsidized “independent living” units (made of the cut-up interiors of some of our noblest old homes, fallen on hard times) — and, by wandering patrols of fat-bodied policemen in their squadcars, careening to and from the then-new “Law Enforcement Center,” with their weekend loads of collegiate drunks….
A Major part of the tale, of course, lets the historian ponder (gloomily enough) that the history of no place in the late-modern age ever went forward in isolation, not after the American Civil War certainly, nor unaffected by the greater story all around us, of the ending of the modern age and the passing away now in our own lifetimes, of the old Atlantic West.
NOW The conventional view in many quarters of the 1960s is that, in this decade most notably, Americans worked to come to terms with the role of government, not least in the betterment of our material and civil lives together. And, there are good reasons for saying so.
OTHERS, Of course, most often they who themselves are hip-deep in the general professionalist corruption of today, claim the moral dissoluteness of that same ten years or so is what is responsible for our artless and disloyal, general and contemporary, moral, swinishness and (now, computerized!) self-preoccupation….
WHAT These last critics mean to allude, I think, is their dim perception:
THAT In history there are as a rule waves within cycles, and longer tides that ebb and flow — and, like as not, bring to naught our dearest conscious ideas and hopes. The whole late-modern age in the old Atlantic West, the age of the nation-state, all the years after the assassination of Lincoln in 1865 and the European 1870 war between France and Prussia — that ensuing age was all about the well-being of “the people.” In Germany, Chancellor Bismarck brought about a conservative (!) revolution through a program of — social security! Teddy Roosevelt and the American Progressive Movement, none of these were half so successful in finding their way to the twentieth century. Indeed, it would be only going on thirty years later, that President F D Roosevelt, with his immense profound feeling for the sufferings of ordinary Americans in the Great Depression of the 1930s, would do something similar — and, prevent possibly a native American-Fascist movement from coming to power, under Louisiana Governor Huey Long and Father Coughlin
DEMOCRACY, You see, meant increasingly that “the people” were able to vote things their way — as though wishing always would, could forever, make it so. There was a great ideal behind this all, of citizenship and social contract. And, as well, a great rivalry in competing “democratic” movements in the late-modern world! In Russia, under the Bolshevists, the great contract and pledge was to extirpate the free-farmer and owning-classes. In Germany, the well-being of “the people” above all would be secured by programs of hygiene, to rid these selfsame volk of jews and defectives, homosexualists, religious persons and — the gypsies….
ALAS, The persistence of Evil and the human shadow!
WHEN Democracy at home was not busy benefiting “the people,” there it was, abroad, farming war and murder. And, I do not suppose for even a moment that in those days and in that vastly different world — albeit not even sixty-five years ago! — that things could have been, “should have been,” any different. There were the tremendous fruits of capital industrialism — the profound question (deeply conditioned by protestant christian culture!) of “fairness” — and, the fascinating fact that government, seemingly, could cure many problems and dissolve many hurts.
BUT, By the 1960s, the government-idea, already, was in question, even as perhaps government in America, at least, realized some of its most sublime achievements — I am thinking, of course, of the great Civil Rights Act of 1964….
BUT Again, alas, the shadow!
THERE Was no great crisis in industry and employment in the 1960s — whereas nevertheless the proprietors of government determined that a not -inconsiderable number of citizens would need to have bought off, their compliance with the constitutional order. And, not only the truly poor and needy of America’s race-ghettos and left-behind hinterlands. You must remember, the 1960s were the age of the “Great Society” — and, that society would be bought with the inifinite subsidy above all of “education.” Or, at least, what passes for such:
NO Greek, no Latin, precious little mathematics, but — no end of professionalist credentials!
I Am a child of those days and this peculiar and non-historical, doomed, 1946-64 generation full of its bright conceit and marijuana and loud popular music. On some break or other, from college classes in 1967 or 1968, or 1970, I would come home to the farm, full steam ahead and all chockful of the “Peace & Love” rant and all the other too, too, pure foredoomed hopes. They were the vain and hammerheaded, apotropaic, dreams of an undergraduate populace already made silly by cheap erotic fantasies — and sentenced to the fragmenting and destructive influences of future professional prosperity. The necessary legislative precedents to guarantee our free (and, largely, not-productive!) ride through a life of cocaine, discotheques and repentant mid-life “Reagenism” were already laid down. The trinket of “big government” was already in existence, and it would be torn to shreds in our grabbing hands in the ‘eighties and ‘nineties, each one out and waving some made-up “degree” or other, to foster his or her own racket. As my late Uncle Emmett Jacobson (d 1980) of rural Eagle Lake, Minnesota, said to me more than once in those old days, and wearing a wicked and delightful, foxy, grin: “Jesus Christ, it don’t matter to ME, kid! I’ll be dead and in Hell and playing rocky-horse on the Devil’s knee and sneezing in the sulfur, saying ‘Daddy, tell me a story!’ But YOU, you young sonofabitch — you’re going to live forever, and YOU’RE the one that’ll have to put up with all this God-damned BS!
ALREADY In 1956, the year that C Wright Mills published his dry and devastating critique of The Power Elite, more than half of all Americans worked not at production but in the “service” economy. The emergence in just fifty years of a full-blown system of “organized irresponsibility” is an astounding historial phenomenon — only look at the war in Viet Nam. And, today, at the Rumsfeld-Halliburton bureaucratic-war, in ‘Iraq.
THE Enemy is “terrorism.”
I Suggest that what terrifies us is the fact that the late-modern democratic age is over (has been since the rival “democracies” finally all went down to defeat in 1989, with the collapse of communism and the pulling-down of the wall in Berlin — forty-four years after Hitler’s Berlin-bunker suicide), and that we now know in our bones, that “the answer” to human trouble and perplexity lies no longer in continuing to do what we have”‘always done” since 1932 — and, that all will not be well just because we continue to do more of it, and faster than ever before:
WE Are now floundering at the end of our mad “baby boom” generation, on the threshold of the strangeness of old age — and, in the middle of the second decade of the so-far-inadequately-called “post-modern” age. This frightens even me, and I have the advantage of being both a student of islamic sufism and an old farmer, used to the mighty vagaries of Nature, drought and hail and blizzard….
ONLY What does this all have to do with the bureaucratic ruin of our fine old nineteenth and early-twentieth century Mankato?
I Would reply only by pointing out that more than forty years ago (less than twenty years after Hitler’s Berlin-suicide), an oldtime Mankato city council, whose mostly German-American aging members were all locked in venomous feuds and hatreds sometimes reaching back for generations among our oldest and best families, were therefore in a conditon of what we jaded languid post–modernes & computer-pornographers should have called a condition of “gridlock.” These old people, everyone individually a fine person, positively could not overcome intestine detestation and actually run the city — and, then, in their perplexity and mutual animosity, they were inveigled and bamboozled into bringing in a city-manager system. It was said to be “professional.” Magic words, with which to conjure! This, like Macdonalds-franchises, was all the coming thing — and, not like the Macdonalds-example, the whole affair failed miserably.
EXCEPT That generations of professional managers have indeed realized and squirreled-away swell retirements for themselves!
OH Tempore, oh mores….
WHATEVER Does all of this history have to do with to-day?
WELL, Lots and none at all, one supposes, depending on temperament…. Be that as it may, a deeper question is what are some of the implications latent in it all?
CAN One name a single building run up in old Mankato in the past forty-some years that people will point to in delight in a century from now?
DOES One suppose that the plastic-sided chipboard $300,000 castles of to-day, that mushroom and sprawl over literally thousands of acres of formerly-good good farmland in every direction in an ever-swelling evil fairy-circle, around the dead-empty old downtown, will be remembered with pride and affection by the grandchildren of those jittery and morally-insubstantial, credentialized, persons sweating nervous mortgages in them, today?
WILL These “high-tech” “homes” even be remotely sought for restoration in the same fashion as the perceptive among us redeem from time-to-time one or another of the fine old manses, in old Lincoln Park?
AND, What are the effects of our contemporary glittering visual impoverishment on our children? On their sense of, need for, place and beauty, that consoling knack that can only be cultivated in the presence of old and familiar, substantially well-made, things?
ALL Of these questions and misgivings one has may indeed be aught but one old man’s curmudgeonly pessimism — but, one suspects, that one day soon among us, in our bewildering litter of electronic trash, the intelligent Chinese man or woman of affairs will move with a curious eye. And, they it may be, who will choose for preference to live in Lincoln Park — and, not on “LorRay Drive” or in “Pheasant Run” (those sickly names!)
CERTAINLY, As matters now stand, we will not pull it off and return to our senses, not easily. The essence of late-historical decadence is a kind of depressed acquiescence, to the bread and circuses…. I perceive that future historians will correctly identify the advent of hypercredentialism and subsidy as a kind of fatal tipping-point in the life of societies. It is always tempting to our beastly knack for above all moral laziness to let others take responsibility, and to console ourselves with the almighty self-deceit:
“THEY Are trained professional state-liberalists — surely, ‘they know what they are doing!'”
WELL, In 1994 Mankato got hold of wads of cash from some short-lived federal program or other, and with this dole the city managers bought a flock of gorgeous new ‘buses. Now, these all sit somewhere in a garage, ever more-disused everyday. It is because “ridership is down.”
WHAT Is the professionalist public manager’s reply to that?
THIS Is the problem with the surrender of local responsibility, all merely for intermittent outsider cash-doses — unbridled lunatic careerism and a loss, at home, of the all-important political will among ourselves alone to try actually new things:
MY Thought on mass-transit is that, if we (!) would agree to nail every motorcar-owner lurking and dwelling within the (ever-expanding and swelling, cancerous!) corporation-limits, with a twenty-thirty dollars per year municipal plate and dedicate the money, why, we should possibly be able to have a really good public-transit system, ‘buses every fifteen or twenty minutes, every ten minutes at rush-hour, all over the city, from three AM to five AM, every day and night.
IF Only we could find the nerve to stand up to the infantility of our own less-gifted and insightful friends and neighbors.
WELL, Then, citizens could commute to work, their children could go to their after-school jobs as “sales-associates” every night after school “up on hill-top,” without nagging for constant parental chauffeuring — and, the young drunks from the state teacher’s college here that calls itself a “university,” well, they could take the “Vomit Comet” back to their dormitories without running over one another and fighting quite so often or so badly, with one another or the common police!
ADDED To that, in the suffocating summers and stagnant winters, “down in the hole,” the air-inversions would not be half so stinking and eye-watering….
MASS-Transit, properly done, in other words would be itself an important increment — to the goal of preservation, which is nothing more-nor-less than a living community!
THOMAS Jefferson was, in my considered historian’s view, an hysteric, and his many jejeune utterances prove the case, alas. But, he did say there had ought to be, perhaps every twenty years or so, a revolution — and now, it may be, that ordinary Mankatoans, especially that remnant of our older families and tormented finally beyond bearing by the ever-more-complex pretensions of the city-manager “system,” will arrive at the decision to re-visit the city charter — and, bring back the mayoral system for a generation or two….
[Emmett R Smith all rights reserved 18 October 2006]