Please Excuse Our Progress

The area around my dad's new condominium is a part of Evanston where I don't know any short cuts. Hometown but not home turf. When I visit, I usually try to get away at some point and make my way ten blocks east to our old neighborhood. Unrecognizable as a forty-year-old version of the kid I once was, I wander around the blocks between Judson and Hinman, Greenleaf and Dempster, a streetside archaeologist looking for evidence to confirm sketchy memories of my childhood. The setting where I stumbled to many early milestones, Miller School, holds the most promise for discoveries. I attended Miller for just two years, third and fourth grade, before it closed, but the lot behind the school and the surrounding geography of alleyways and backyards was where I lived between the ages of eight and fifteen. The ruddy multi-purpose field and old-school institutional playground behind Miller was where I first kissed a girl, first drank a beer (Schaefer), first painted on a mural, and where I got my first nickname "loewe." Returning thirty years later was a small heartbreak. The place I'd mythologized ever since I left, looked like a cheap black and white replica of my technicolor memory. It was an impostor. It was too clean, too small, and too quiet. Most significantly, Miller had been where I wound-up nearly every day for eight years to practice pitching. But looking out from the spot where I used to dig my foot into the dirt to make a pitching rubber, I saw a good-sized maple tree between me and the blue rectangle strike zone spray painted on the wall. If I'd only had a chainsaw: Miller had been given a complete make over, including a new official City of Evanston park name emblazoned in yellow painted letters on a big wooden sign where the jungle gym used to be. It's not Miller anymore, it's Currey. Seeing that sign was like getting snubbed by a best friend. Who the hell was Currey? It wasn't Currey that was carved into stone above the doorway to the school, it was Miller. Feeling a mild bout of vertigo coming on as I walked away, I thought, this isn't home, this isn't what I remembered.Places and people can get stuck in time if we don't see them regularly over the years. The fragile and incremental way that we piece together a relationship with a place, a close friend, or a lover can be easily and unconsciously whittled down into a singular static image by our absence. I think this is why places from our childhood, like Miller, look so small when we revisit them as adults, and why it's so easy to forgive an ex-lover, you swore you would never speak to again, upon seeing them again for the first time in years. Like an overgrown battlefield, it's easy to lose track of the markers and motives that guided us in our past if we leave for too long. And unlike Billy Pilgrim, from Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse Five," we are stuck in time and saddled with that most anesthetizing of human traits the capacity to forget. Places and people can get stuck in time not just by absence, but also because our knowledge of them is too thin to begin with and not fleshed out by experience. I realized this again on a recent trip to Greenville, Mississippi, where I went to work on a mural. In my consciousness, I remembered Mississippi as some thing that happened a long time ago and then ended like a chapter in a ninth grade U.S. history textbook. Mississippi had been an early spelling test word, the legacy of slavery, cotton, blues, the Civil Rights movement, and not much else. And since my education concerning the state ended with civil rights, I hadn't really considered what happened to Mississippi since the mid-'60s. Mississippi is still there.Mississippi is still there. This is what I've been telling friends who ask about my trip to Greenville. It's a beautiful state, lush and languid, a home to great artists and greater legends. It is also a state of three million people that ranks last or nearly last in the nation in per capita income, academic achievement, and spending on public education, but is notably ranked second in legalized gambling. Driving one-way up Washington Avenue in Greenville on a Saturday afternoon there is an eerie stillness in what was once the center of downtown. You can hear the clicks of the traffic signal switching box as lights change from green to yellow to red without a car passing. Those bright lights were the only saturated colors I saw around until a busload of convicts arrived one day, in green and white stripes, to mount grinning elves and candy cane Christmas decorations onto all the street lights. Most of the six-block stretch of the old retail center is abandoned and crumbling if not already razed. Like bottle glass on an ocean beach, shards of brick and tile are ground down into ever smaller pieces until they become unrecognizable as building materials and disappear into the growing fields of gravel. Highlighting this scene, like a sarcastic punch line, is a large orange sign in the middle of the street that reads "Please Excuse Our Progress." [![][1]][2] Visitors from a hip and healthy town like Lawrence may see a melancholic beauty in the exposed decay of a place like Greenville. I did. Walking around the foundations of what had been a shoe store or a pharmacy reminded me of visiting the ruins in Rome, but these weren't ancient ruins and they certainly were not a tourist attraction. Greenville, unlike [Greensburg, Kansas][3], was not recently hit by a arbitrary act of mother nature. The damage there has come slowly with less drama and is more the result of human choice than intended harm. There is no FEMA or documentary film crew anxious to help people living with this type of misfortune, only casinos as far as I could tell. Without a personal connection to the place, my thoughts wandered as I walked around, and I imagined Washington Avenue in a long tracking shot from a Jim Jarmusch film or as an inspiration for a great tableau by Anselm Keifer. These were easy, care free thoughts for me. I was just a visitor. I could leave whenever I wanted. I've watched many communities that are struggling to keep their downtowns alive start mural projects in hopes of recapturing a little civic pride. The intentions are always good, but sometimes the bright colors and scenes that celebrate the 'good old days' look more ironic than inspirational in the context of empty storefronts and broken concrete. With this in mind, the mural I collaborated on with sixth graders from Ella Darling School in Greenville was meant to look forward not back. The inspiration, for what would later become the "Tree of Dreams" mural, wasn't hard to find. It came on the day we walked downtown to inspect the wall of the Higher Dimensions Church where we were going to paint. Along the way, not more than a block from the wall, in the entryway of an abandoned jewelry store, we saw a small tree struggling to grow from a crack near the door. It had no business growing there and its chances of survival were slim, but of course, it didn't care. That was its home, it couldn't leave, and so it would live there the best it could. Just like these kids, I thought, whose school motto was "Keep Your Head Up and Your Heart Strong" printed between two muscular blue arms emerging from big red hearts. [![][4]][5][![][6]][7] On my last day in Greenville, at the mural dedication, a TV reporter asked me "Why?" "What is the purpose of this mural?" "What are you trying to do?" Put on the defensive, I didn't have a quick answer. The success of our project did not hinge on whether Washington Avenue was revitalized or whether all the kids involved got higher standardized test scores. What I didn't know how to say at the time, but my friend Natalie reminded me of later, was that these murals I've been doing, for almost twenty years now, are not a kind of currency or ad campaign to be converted into something else. They are what you see, and they are evidence or reminders of the experiences we have had in making them a trail of sparks for our memories that we can rediscover when trying to make our way back into time. [1]: [2]: [3]: [4]: [5]: [6]: [7]:


Bill Woodard 9 years, 9 months ago

Thanks for sharing, Dave, and welcome home.

Jill Ensley 9 years, 9 months ago

You've reduced us all to quiet, few word responses. Except me, who had to spoil it by pointing it out. Pretend it was this instead:

Thank you.

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