Friday, December 19, 2003
William S. Burroughs (1914-1997), the author of Naked Lunch (1959) and many other books, was already world-famous by late 1981, when he moved to Lawrence, Kansas, at age 67 to seek a quieter life, after living all over the United States, North Africa and Europe. For 15 years, from fall 1982 until his death in August 1997 he resided at 1927 Learnard Avenue, in the Barker Neighborhood in southeastern Lawrence--a street address that he held longer than any in his life before those years.
Burroughs' Lawrence years were a period of continued creativity during which he wrote four major books and also took up painting, a second career that met with widespread acceptance. In 1983 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters; a year later he was named a Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres of France. Burroughs' frequent travels in the U.S. and Europe dwindled by the late 1980s, but that only resulted in more and more of his old friends visiting him here in Lawrence. Countless other admirers and collaborators with him (on projects from film to stage to the printed page) came to Lawrence to see Burroughs, and he had many personal friends in this City who saw him on a daily or weekly basis.
With sales of his most important books exceeding one million copies worldwide, William Burroughs is one of only a handful of Lawrence residents who have put this place "on the map," and in that personal effect on national and international awareness of Lawrence's existence he stands in the ranks of such historical figures as Langston Hughes, John Brown, William Quantrill, James Naismith, Hugh Beaumont, Clyde Tombaugh, Jim Thorpe, "Phog" Allen, and Herk Harvey. Of these, only Langston Hughes was of comparable literary importance; the others are known for their political, scientific, cinematic or athletic prominence. (See Appendix A.)
There is no gainsaying the significance of Burroughs in the history of postwar American literature and its international impact. Clearly, his long late-life residence here represents a valuable and important asset for the future of Lawrence as a destination both for visitors and for new residents of our community. The appeal of Burroughs' aura in Lawrence, even posthumously, for what Dr. Richard Florida has termed "the creative class" holds enormous potential for the social, cultural and economic future of our community. It behooves citizens loyal to the future of Lawrence to nurture this legacy.
This Report is intended to address several ways in which the "Burroughs legacy" interacts with other contemporary currents of Lawrence's local planning and development history. Its author, the Executor of the William S. Burroughs Estate, has resided in Lawrence from 1969 to 1973 and from 1979 to the present, and he is dedicated to entering private life as an academic and turning over the public management of this legacy to the community's benefit.
Tangible, architectural remnants of a significant person's life are not absolutely necessary for that person's achievements to be locally honored; consider, for example, the February 2003 Langston Hughes Symposium in Lawrence, which focused international attention here despite the fact that Hughes' boyhood homes at 732 Alabama and 731 New York were demolished by the end of the 1980s by property owners oblivious to his local importance.
But in William Burroughs' case, the house where he lived his last years still stands on the land where it was built in the mid-1920s: a densely-wooded lot 283 feet deep, east to west, and 110 feet wide, less a rectangle of land 118 feet deep by 35 feet wide that was deeded from the 1927 Learnard property's southeast corner to the neighboring tract to the south, 1931 Learnard. Through that rectangle flows a major creek known as "the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe (A.T.S.F.) Tributary," running to the east-northeast and crossing under Learnard Avenue and nearby 19th Street on its way north then east to the Kansas River.
Learnard Avenue begins at 23rd Street and runs north only to 15th Street; it was named for Col. Oscar E. Learnard (1832-1911), a Free state activist, Haskell Institute superintendent and newspaperman. All (or at least the northern portion) of the eight-block, unified "block"--from 19th to 23rd, and from Barker to Learnard--was platted as "Spalding's Subdivision" in the mid-1920s; several of the houses on Barker and Learnard are two or three decades older than that. The subdivision was not annexed by the City until 1956, but Barker Neighborhood--like its neighbors to the north and northeast, the East Lawrence and Brook Creek Neighborhoods, through both of which the ATSF Tributary also runs--is one of the oldest inhabited areas now within the City of Lawrence.
In 1920, a few years before the house at 1927 Learnard was built, Lawrence could claim only 12,456 residents. Eighty years later, the population is more than seven times that number, not counting the nearly 24,000 University of Kansas students who are here for the fall and spring semesters. With this impressive growth and urbanization have come all the problems of a growing city: stormwater-drainage issues; roadway service levels and design issues for residents, motorists, pedestrians, hikers and bicyclists; and the pressure of housing development to infill vacant areas (which, in turn, is preferable to urban sprawl). In Lawrence, the growth of these density-related problems has fortunately been matched by a growing acceptance of context-sensitive design principles for city-planning and civil engineering projects.
This Report details the recent history and current status of local planning decisions as they relate to the Burroughs legacy. It is offered as a guide and resource for all citizens interested in supporting the development of this artistic legacy as a public good, harmonized with other community goals such as stormwater drainage, roads, and parks planning.
The Report recommends that the Burroughs Home at 1927 Learnard be dedicated to the public benefit; that it should accordingly be restored, preserved and managed; that all the City's public works projects directly affecting the environs of the site be appropriately amended to mitigate and minimize any adverse effects, but without delaying the City's plans unduly; and that the historic site's value would be augmented by honorific namings such as Burroughs Creek, Burroughs Creek Trail, and Burroughs Creek Bridge--but those should be submitted to appropriate, relevant public review, and not imposed on the neighborhood or the City in any unduly aggrandizing way.
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