Hidden in Suburbia (Salvage)

This version of my website was established in mid-2014, and includes posts from a variety of my other websites dating back to 1995. When I set this one to be a central clearing house, I closed most of the older domains.

There are two downsides to this sort of consolidation. First, pages that had long been Google search favorites now have new addresses, so they’re a little harder to find, and generate a little less traffic than they once did. Second, internal links get hashed up as articles move from one domain to another, while their images or related pages either no longer exist, or remain on other servers with other addresses. These are both annoyances, but I decided that they were acceptable inconveniences, given the content density that comes from having twenty years’ worth of the best bits from a dozen websites in a single (virtual) location.

For most articles, especially standalone pieces, these structural inconveniences really don’t have any lasting impact. But for long-form, multiple chapter entries, or pieces with significant inline imagery, they can be catastrophic to understanding or appreciating what I originally intended to communicate. Unfortunately, one of my most popular online pieces, the “Hidden in Suburbia” series, was particularly hard hit by changes in hosting locations and addresses. I ran multi-entry “Hidden in Suburbia” series in 2005, 2008 and 2011, and they were widely read, and still generate significant search interest. Alas, much of the incoming traffic generated by that interest now results in “404 Page Not Found” entries.

Here’s the original premise of the series:

I live in a nice area called Latham, New York, middle to upper-middle class for the most part, well-kept homes in properly manicured and landscaped settings, good schools, good investment value in property, all the things one generally expects in the nicer bits of suburbia. If you draw a circle with a radius of about two and half miles around my house, you will also see that there are lots of woods. This makes the neighborhoods look nice, with backdrops of green and nice, tidy (from a distance) wild areas separating one neighborhood from another. This is good, because I have a deep fascination with woods. Not forests, mind you, but woods. Forests are the untamed, wild places where nature is still, for the most part, in charge, and where urban, exurban and suburban development are still ages, years and/or miles and miles away. Woods, on the other hand, are the bits of forest that are left when development occurs, stands of trees immediately adjacent to suburban civilization, the dark places where all the things that suburban civilization doesn’t want to think about go to die. Or to thrive, depending on what flavor they are. It’s shocking to find a piece of trash in a pristine forest. In suburban woods, though, you expect to find trash. People dump in there late at night, so they don’t have to drive all the way to the landfill. Kids steal stuff and take it out there to hide it, then forget about it. Teenagers smoke, drink, make out, break bottles and blow things up in the woods, leaving a variety of interesting detritus. The woods are the places where suburbia’s darkness lurks in wait, like something from a David Lynch movie. But it’s not the specters and spirits of the woods that interest me, really, as much as it the stuff you find back there, and how the community sort of turns its collective consciousness away from it all. It may be right behind your house, but if it’s in the woods, then it’s okay, as long as it stays there and you don’t have to think about it if you don’t want to. But I like thinking about it . . . and so I ride and walk through muck, mud, weeds and woods looking for the things that no one else wants to. All of the photos and all of the stories in this series are taken and told from within a circle with a five mile circumference, my house smack in the center. It doesn’t seem like a lot of space . . . until you really start exploring the spaces between the space . . .

While working to clean up some archives for another project, I decided to see what I could do to salvage the original three Hidden in Suburbia essays. The 2011 one was pretty easy to clean up and recover, since it was posted to WordPress on the defunct Indie Albany page, which was formatted very much like Indie Moines, and so could be exported and imported with most links and references intact, and because the images were hosted on a Flickr account that I still have. Clicking the link below will bring the series up — plus a related piece called “Academia (After the Apocalypse)” — with both words and images available as they originally appeared, with the last post first, and first post last, per normal blog convention. (The post you are currently reading will appear on top at the new window, since it shares a coding category, but you can then scroll down and work back up to read them in proper chronological order, if you want; note, too, that you will need to hit the “older posts” link at the bottom of the page to see the first two pieces):

J. Eric Smith’s Hidden in Suburbia 2011: Complete

The 2008 and 2005 articles, on the other hand, are damaged beyond viable repair in terms of re-knitting narrative and images together again, so the best I can do for the two of those series is to delete the damaged pages and upload the imagery into its own Flickr set, so if you’re interested, you can see it, and I can answer any questions about it, but that’s about it. Interestingly enough, though, I have found that going through these images as a slideshow is actually oddly fascinating . . . the lack of context, and the unrelenting oddness of the spaces where woods and civilization meet, creates quite an evocative experience. Click the link below to see the whole set:

J. Eric Smith’s Hidden in Suburbia 2005 and 2008: Photo Archive

I hope that these pieces will inspire you to explore your own woods and share what you’ve found. While these images were captured in and around Latham, New York, they truly could be just about anywhere in North America where stands of old trees abut suburban and exurban development, and the universal nature of these images is what has given them their appeal over the years.

Something terrible happened here . . .

Something terrible happened here . . .

Pink Flag at Map Ref 41 N 93 W

Wire have been one of my favorite bands since the late 1970s, and their latest album, Change Becomes Us, has been earning heavy spins on household and car stereos hereabouts since its issue last month. It’s one of their finest discs ever, hands down. For longtime Wire fans, this one has been a particular treat, since it returns to song sketches crafted in the aftermath of their 1979 masterpiece, 154, but only issued in fragmentary or raw form on the live Document and Eyewitness, released when the quartet dissolved for the first time as the ’80s dawned.

With a new Wire album out, I loaded up a bunch of their older tracks — including their remarkable 154-era single “Map Ref. 41° N 93° W” — onto the car iPod when Marcia and I drove down to Asheville, North Carolina last month to visit family. “Map Ref” came on somewhere in Tennessee, and Marcia looked at the title on the dashboard display and asked “Is that a real place, and have you looked to see where it is?” As a hardcore map geek, and a 30+ year Wire fan, I was embarrassed to admit that I had not, so I asked her to use her Smart Phone to look it up and see where it was.

Imagine our surprise when Marcia discovered that the point described by those latitude and longitude coordinates was about 100 miles from our home in Des Moines, down near Centerville, Iowa! When we got back here after our holiday, I did a little research and discovered why lyricist Graham Lewis had picked that point: here’s the story.

For those who know me or have been reading my writing for more than the past ten minutes, it should come as no surprise that I immediately resolved to visit this location, since that’s how I roll. A little Google Earth research showed me that it’s actually a bit to the northwest of Centerville, on the opposite side of Lake Rathbun, where Marcia and I had vacationed for a weekend last summer.

Map Ref 41 N 93 W as Graham Lewis might have first seen it

It appeared to be in the middle of a pasture, about a mile from U.S. Highway 34. I could see that a tree-lined creek bed ran from the highway nearly to the “Map Ref” coordinates, but unfortunately, where the creek crossed under Highway 34, there appeared to be a large production facility of some sort, likely a pig enclosure based on its size and shape from above. That means people, and people means trouble for the casual trespasser. I could also see a dirt road to the west of the creek that got relatively close to the spot, so hoped I’d be able to sneak down that.

Either way, I wanted to get there, and this weekend seemed the ideal time to do it, as Marcia was away in Portland, Oregon, visiting her sister, and spring had actually finally made its first sustained appearance in Iowa. I decided to mark my visit for posterity’s sake, and originally considered placing a geocache there, with my e-mail address in it, so that if any future Wire geeks arrived on the designated spot, they’d be able to share their accomplishment with me. But then, as I thought about it longer, I decided that directly announcing my trespassing tendencies was probably not the smartest course of action.

So instead, I decided to leave a Pink Flag, in honor of Wire’s seminal debut album, which also serves to this day as their website address.

I left Des Moines around 7:00 Saturday morning, and by 9:00 AM, I’d reached the nearest point on the highway to “Map Ref. 41° N 93° W”, and was disappointed to discover that the dirt road approaching the designated spot was barred by a locked, heavy-duty gate, necessary to keep the cattle behind it from venturing onto the roadway. Much of Iowa is corn, soybean or hog country, but this sector is cattle country, which means there is a lot of hardcore fencing, little of it easily crossed. Shucks.

The land did have a little bit of rise and fall, though, so I was able to pull my car down into a little gully beneath the roadside power line and behind some scrub trees, where I hoped no one from the hog enclosure across the way would notice it during the half hour or so it took me to get to the map reference point and back. I walked southward down the east bank of the tree-lined creek for about half a mile, trying to keep out of the sight lines of anybody in the farmhouse on the hill to the east of me, until I reached a pasture that was surrounded by a barbed-wired topped fence. I skirted the fence east to a point about 150 feet north of “Map Ref. 41° N 93° W”, trying to find a way to get over it, until I noticed what it was there to contain: another couple of dozen cows . . . and a bull who seemed to be watching me on behalf of his farmer owners.

I decided that this mission had gone far enough, and that attempting to climb a barbed-wire fence, place the flag, take photos, and then outrun an enraged territorial bull probably crossed the line from “entertaining adventure” into “reckless stupidity”. So I placed my flag on the north side of the fence, saluted the bull, and considered my work done. I left the flag behind . . . I don’t know how it will fare in the Iowa weather, but maybe some other Wire fan will find it, someday, and know that someone who cared was there. Here’s the photo:

Pink Flag at Map Ref 41 N 93 W, give or take 150 feet.

Pink Flag at Map Ref 41 N 93 W, give or take 150 feet.

 

The Lifestyle You Deserve

I am a deeply-committed music geek (as if that’s not obvious enough, duh), and there are very few things in my life that don’t feature background tunes when they’re happening. There is one major exception to this rule, though, and that would be cycling. I am pretty serious about the act of getting on a bike and taking to the road, or the trail, or the hidden deep-woods zones, and I never, ever, ever, never, ever do anything when I am on a bike that impedes my already damaged hearing, since the ability to perceive incoming sounds is a key to safely negotiating the path on a two-wheeled, self-propelled vehicle. So I always shake my head disapprovingly when I pass cyclists with headphones on, and have been doing so for many years. That’s dangerous and wrong. This year, however, I have been dismayed to discover a new source of sonic distraction on the bike trail: people riding with actual speakers on their bikes, so not only are they distracted from the dangerous world around them, but anyone else anywhere near them is also subjected to the tinny din of their trebly iPod-quality speakers. A few weeks ago, I was walking a trail with some family members, and the bucolic nature of our hike was disrupted three times by cyclists roaring up on us with speakers cranked, which (they seemed to believe) also mitigated the need for them to verbally notify us of their passage, via the courteous “on your left” or “bikes back” declarations that I always offer to pedestrians on the trail. Instead, we got bad Bon Jovi delivered with maximum volume and distortion, pushing us off the trail, and making conversation impossible until the owners of those odious musical rigs were well past us on the trail. This strikes me as a terrible evolution in the field of communal, public cycling, and I am hoping that these recent events are short-lived anomalies, though in my heart, I suspect they aren’t. I guess once you get to the point where you can carry on private conversations in public with a Bluetooth device stuck in your ear, then your ability to render courtesies to the other human beings within your sonic sphere atropies quickly, on foot or on bike. This seems a pity to me.

Community vs Communication

Through more than two decades of travels about the series of tubes that comprise the online world, I’ve often found myself pondering the nature of community, as that word is applied to groups that form and function in virtual spaces.

I’ve watched the word “community”  being ever-more widely and casually used over the years to describe clusters of physically remote individuals interacting collectively online, via an ever-evolving spectrum of technological applications, from ARPANET to the World Wide Web, from bulletin boards to LISTSERVs, from mailing lists to MMORPGs, from blogs to tweets, and from Cyber-Yugoslavia to Six Degrees to Friendster to Orkut to Xanga to Myspace to LinkedIn to Facebook to Google+ to whatever the next killer social app may be.

But are the groups that form in such virtual locations truly communities in any meaningful human sense? When evaluating traditional definitions of the word “community,” several key themes emerge:

  • An organized group of individuals;
  • Resident in a specific locality;
  • Interdependent and interacting within a particular environment;
  • Defined by social, religious, occupational, ethnic or other discrete considerations;
  • Sharing common interests;
  • Of common cultural or historical heritage;
  • Sharing governance, laws and values;
  • Perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some way from the larger society in which it exists.

If you’re willing to accept that a “specific locality” or “a particular environment” may be defined by virtual boundaries, rather than physical or geographical ones, then it’s generally pretty easy to conclude that, yes, online groups can, in fact, meet the most basic parameters for declaring that they are communities. But other elements embedded within those defining traits raise more difficult questions and considerations, including (but not limited to):

  • What, exactly, is an individual in a world where identity is mutable? Is a lurker who never comments a member of a community? Is a sockpuppet a member of a community? Are anonymous posters members of a community? If a person plays in an online role-playing game as three different characters, is he one or three members of the community?
  • How are culture and historical heritage defined in a world where a six-month old post or product is considered ancient? Do technical platforms (e.g. WordPress vs. Blogger) define culture? Does history outside of the online community count toward defining said community?
  • What constitutes shared governance online? Who elects or appoints those who govern, however loosely, and does it matter whether they are paid or not for their service to the group? What are their powers? Are those powers fairly and equitably enforced, and what are the ramifications and consequences when they are not? Is a virtual dictatorship a community?
  • How important is “distinctiveness” to community, when online groups are often defined by what they are not as much as by what they are? Are online groups merely the ultimate manifestation of Peter Gabriel’s prescient 1980 track, “Not One of Us,” wherein he asked “How can we be in, if there is no outside”?  And can you truly build a community of peers within an Orwellian world where “All bloggers are equal, but some bloggers are more equal than others”?

At root, the fundamental fallacy or flaw with online communities is the fact that virtual gatherings cannot (yet) replicate physical gatherings, as their impacts are limited to but two senses: sight and sound. While these two senses are clearly those most closely associated with “higher” intellectual function, learning and spirituality, the physical act of gathering or meeting in the flesh is much richer, as it combines those cerebral perceptive elements with the deeper, more primal, brain stem responses that we have to taste, touch and smell stimuli.

Exchanging a message online removes any ability to experience the physical reality of actually touching another person, be it through a hand-shake, a kiss, a squeeze of the arm or a pat on the back. There is no ability to taste and feel the texture of the food we discuss in a chat room, or the feel of crystal against the teeth as the first sip of wine passes our lips. The nuances of facial expression and inflection are lost in e-mails, often leading to confusion or alarm where none was required or intended. The physical act of community building is a visceral one that appeals to, and requires, all of our senses, not just those that can be compressed into two-dimensions on our computer screens.

Two-dimensional communities are, ultimately, destined to disappoint for precisely that reason. While it’s become cliché to compare the dawn of the Internet era to the dawn of the printing press era, it’s important to note that the earlier cataclysmic shift in the way that information was preserved and presented (from spoken word to widely-available printed material) did not result in the elimination of the physical gathering, upon which all of our innate senses of community have been defined and built. I have come to believe that community requires physical connection. It is deeper than an e-mail, more resonant than a blog post, more important than your hit counts or number of followers.

At bottom line, for me, “communication” occurs online, but “community” must be rooted in the soil or the flesh. So I consider myself a member of the University at Albany community, or the community of Latham, New York, or the community of Naval Academy Alumni, or the Capital Region music community, among others. And I look forward to soon becoming an active, engaged member of many new communities in and around Des Moines, Iowa, where we will be moving in November.

My current and future communities involve geographic boundaries, shared interests, common heritage, supportive beliefs. And while the members of my communities may choose to communicate with each other online (since there’s no escaping the fact that we spend a lot of time in front of computers, every day, whether we like it or not), the communities themselves are not defined by what happens in virtual space.

And that makes all the difference in the world, I think.

Hidden in Suburbia 2011: Epilog

Okay, I lied.

I wasn’t planning to do any more Hidden in Suburbia pieces during my final seven weeks in Latham, but as I was out riding for exercise last week, I noticed a new construction cut into some of my favorite woods, and that made me want to grab the camera and see what was going on, in an area that I had considered safe from suburban encroachment. I was, apparently, wrong in that assessment. As always, hit the picture below to read the annotated story in all of its wistfulness, or if my words tire you out prematurely, just click here for the wordless slideshow.

To see other Hidden in Suburbia photo essays, click here.

What Will This Evening Bring Me This Morning?

1. Marcia and I are back from our second exploratory trip to Des Moines. We definitely know which neighborhood we want to claim as our home out there, and we have two fantastic houses that we’re pondering making offers on, pending a review of the comps. We had several exceptional meals in Des Moines, found an awesome wine bar, walked for miles and miles on the City’s excellent pedestrian-cycling trail system, golfed the incredibly hilly Waveland Golf Course (no kidding, it had more ups and downs than some mountain courses we’ve played) and generally felt better and better about our decision to head to Iowa. The first night we were there, we stayed out in a northern suburb of Des Moines called Ankeny, since most of the downtown hotels were sold out due to the annual Hy-Vee Triathlon being in town for the Labor Day Weekend. While we were out that way, I figured I ought to grab the camera and do a little Hidden in Suburbia (Iowa Style). Toto, I don’t think we’re in Latham anymore . . .

I found a vast soy bean field, and walked across it . . . with an aura . . .

2. I’m in my final year as Class President and Reunion Coordinator for the Naval Academy’s Class of 1986. Our 25th Reunion is in October, and this is the third major reunion (15th, 20th, 25th) in which I’ve had a significant planning or management role. Our class, and other anniversary classes, are seeing reduced registrations this year compared to prior major reunions, which most folks are attributing to the tough economy. That may be the case, but since most of my classmates at Navy are pretty economically comfortable, I think there’s another reason for the reduction in attendance at real flesh-and-blood reunions: online social networking. It seems to me that as more and more folks my age connect via Facebook and other social media outlets, we’ve created a world where there’s no mystery anymore about what we’re going to encounter when we go to our reunions. When we can bathe in the minutia of our friends’ lives in garish detail each and every day from the cheap comfort of our own homes, why does it make sense to buy an expensive plane ticket and book an expensive hotel room to visit with those same friends for a couple of hours in the flesh? While Facebook and LinkedIn help organize reunions, I’m not sure that they actually support participation. I’m curious if anybody else who reads this has had similar experiences, or whether this theory resonates with you or not.

3. And speaking of real-world versus online-world, I’ll be hanging out in Latham for about five weeks after Marcia heads west, and one of my goals for that time is to do as much real-world socializing with folks hereabouts as I am able to, especially with some of the folks who I primarily know only through electronic formats. So keep your eyes and ears open, as I will be working to fill a dance card, and I might need you on it . . .