I am in a Fargo cafe, having gotten here about 14 minutes behind schedule. This town will always be my great inescapable Yesterday. But it’s t also quite up to the moment. I’m still amazed that I have to drive around downtown to get a parking spot, or that the shops are bustling and the sidewalk cafes are full and everything is so clean and orderly. It’s a place that works. It really was an exceptional place to grow up. The only thing I miss, really - aside from the heedless joys of youth, incorrectly reassembled in memory from the busted crockery that once held the experiences - is the suburban architecture. The drive-ins and the NORGE laundry sign and the script neon and all the rest. You know, things . . . like this.
I shouted out WHOA KING LEO when I saw that. Remembered the story a friend had sent me: some guys who also remembered the King Leo burger joint were bringing it back. Original logo on a smaller version of the sign.
Seems as if it should be open by now. Doesn't look like anything's happened recently; hope it's up soon.
I noted I was 14 minutes late:
Yeah. Well. Almost hope the Highway Patrol officer pulls over some out of staters who watch “Fargo” and can’t believe how art imitates life; the officer was an almost exact copy for the female police officer in the TV show. Kind, too; she knocked my speed down a bit because I did not argue or contest a single thing, and perhaps because I began the entire thing the usual way: pull over, flashers, hands at 10 and 2, clean vehicle interior, keys on the dashboard. I am not going to be a problem.
But I had an old insurance card, so I can’t just pay and skip on my merry way; have to go online and provide my current card, a small detail I will no doubt put off until I’m 4 hours away from license revocation, because hey tomorrow! Tomorrow! I can do that tomorrow.
I was off to do a story on Highway Ten and the state of small towns along Minnesota's main old road. Column to do tonight, but I write something Monday afternoon for just this very situation. It follows. NO, you say, IT PRECEDES, AND I ALREADY READ IT. Shut up. I'm tired.
Anyway, more on Fargo tomorrow, including the Story of the Hair and the Village Idiot Inn. Both restaurant stories, but that's what you do in Fargo. You eat.
Hatherley has quite a weird background himself. Son of Trotskyists and grandson of members of the Communist Party of Great Britain, he grew up in the 1980s on a Southampton council estate whose ‘cottage’-style buildings he disdained. The brutalist 1960s tower blocks nearby, with their concrete walkways and windswept precincts, seemed by comparison excitingly modern and glamorous. Poignancy was added when some of the towers were demolished during his childhood.
He first made a splash with his love song to architectural brutalism, Militant Modernism (2008), and the larger-scale A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain (2010), reviewed in these pages by Will Self. Hatherley confesses to ‘nostalgia for the future’ in Militant Modernism, ‘a longing for the fragments of the half-hearted postwar attempt at building a new society, an attempt that lay in ruins by the time I was born’.
It’s from this piece on Soviet architecture and a reevaluation of its miseries. There is nostalgia among some for Brutalism, because it reminds them of a time when they were young and impatient to upend the world. Of course, these are precisely the people you don’t want anywhere near such a project.
The paragraph abounds with telling detail: his parents were Communists, lived in houses given to them by the state, and the son didn’t like the tacky bourgeoise style of the free homes but longed for a life in grey featureless buildings so lacking in attribute that the writer of the piece uses “concrete walkways” as the first item in a scant list of descriptions.
The author rejects the idea that the featureless streetless worker blocks of Soviet times were impersonal and depressing, but admits that his co-writer, who grew up in one, found them hideous and impersonal and depressing. He allows himself to muse that “something must have gone wrong.” Two things, I’d say: they were designed and they were built. But the grey civic leviathans built for the Workers to be edified along the designated lines and eat and see a museum exhibit and perhaps swim - well, cockles are warmed by the very thought of them.
What Hatherley values, despite the absence of airs and graces, toilets and any encouragement to linger over your food, is ‘that sense of filling, slightly stodgy comfort which features so often in the memories of those who remember “real socialism”’
Real socialism may not be able to produce toilets, but it can give you the stodgy comfort that comes from laborious digestion of your boiled cabbage and knowing that everyone else’s cabbage was just as bad. Except for upper Party members. Those bastards had toilets. Probably toilets with doors.
Brutalist architecture was ‘a political aesthetic, an attitude, a weapon, dedicated to the precept that nothing was too good for ordinary people’. The Smithsons’ aim was to create ‘streets in the sky’, gallery access flats that replicated traditional patterns of working-class habitation, but with added glamour. Robin Hood Gardens is, he writes, ‘fortress-like, daringly sculptural, with its gradated concrete gleaming golden in the sun.’
It is hard to believe how this embodies the perception that nothing was too good for ordinary people, unless you take it to mean that ordinary people were so common and unimportant that literally giving them nothing constituted more charity than they deserved. Wikipedia’s entry on Robin Hood Gardens:
Although Peter Smithson admitted he had been driven by a combination of urgency, practicality and idealism, he claimed in a 1990s interview that the project had failed, although he largely blamed social issues rather than architectural ones for this failure. "In other places you see doors painted and pot plants outside houses, the minor arts of occupation, which keep the place alive. In Robin Hood you don't see this because if someone were to put anything out it people will break it.”
Asked why he felt this was the case, Smithson cited 'social jealousy', he then went on to say,
"The week it opened, people would shit in the lifts, which is an act of social aggression.”
Hatherly also noted that people behaved very poorly in the cottage-style public housing, which put to lie the idea that better surroundings will make for better people. They trashed it because it didn’t belong to them. The Lennon song so many people find profound asked us to “imagine no possessions,” adding “it’s easy if you try.” It’s easier if you just look at the places where the utopian dream was built, and the dispossessed were filed into concrete hives that belonged to no one. If there’s anything more concisely symbolic than crapping in the means intended to elevate the occupants, I can’t think of it.
God Bless America, Texas, and Chevrolet, and the right to order that list as we see fit:
A beautiful thing. Unfortunately, I'm imagining a post-1973 movie where the owner is a walking loud cliche in a large hat with a bored pretty wife and a sharp salesman who has his eyes on the wife and who plays up his piety when selling to churchfolk and lays on the innuendo when pitching a car to a married man in his thirties, and so on and so on. One of those things were no one's any good, except the good people, who are laughable when they're not just boring.
But that has nothing to do with this. Why did I choose this town? You'll see.
A peculiar arrangement, this: an angled entrance on an alley. Maybe it's a Texas thing.
"We call that the Texas Cut 'round these parts. Most everyone knows what that for."
"What's it for?"
"For pointing out the people who don't know what it's for."
That's a fine sign. The lines absorb the civic energy, channel it through the HOWARD matrix, and pump the civic energy into the theater.
This is the second Howard theater. The first was built in the mid-20s by Howard Bland; this one was a second-run theater called the Rita. Howard took it over in the fifties. (Info from Cinema Treasures.)
A touch of that first-floor fog Google cars seem to bring with them:
Interesting building; the ground floor and the upper floors are not consistent, but I don't think they rehabbed the upper floors a decade or two after the building was erected. Those stumpy columns in the corner were popular at the time, but look uncomfortable to modern eyes.
A ghost building, perhaps lost in a fire or just the tireless efforts of time. Like many things, we only can infer it from the mark it made on a neighbor.
How the roof fit in with the different colored bricks, I've no idea.
If it's an early 30s building, it had some residual pizzazz from 20s motifs. The crossover and blending of the Deco and Moderne can make it tough to nail down the era to which it belonged. Cool to see it so pristine, though - was it never touched, or rescued after decades under ugly metal? I suspect the former.
Annnnnd . . . IOOF!
A rusticated beaut with a proud pair of bay windows. Must have been lots of demand for a place to people and stand and look down at the street in all possible directions.
An industrial building I suspect was once entirely glass, and now is anything but:
Even after they removed the glass, there were still windows. But those had to go, too.
A forgotten old senior citizen, spared modernization, now on a street whose vitality was drained away by an overpass.
Finallly, here's the reason I chose this one.
It was a hardware store. I pieced the name together from a few shots in the headsplitting "Transformers 4" movie.
It was bought and rehabbed in 2011. From the newspaper: “I had to replace all the transformers and the wiring,” Truex said.
Should have waited; Bay would have replaced all the transformers.
If you've seen the movie, you know they go into a movie theater acros the street. It's not there. That's another town. Movie magic! But this is in Taylor:
I missed that the first time I wandered around. Found it:
Morning Glory . . . what? You can make out the word if you try.