Friday, July 30, 2010

And now back to our regularly scheduled program . . .

If you read this blog with any frequency, you know I took a break from neighborhood stuff to reflect on a recent trip to Russia. Much has happened in the meantime, and I'm feeling all Rip Van Winkly trying to catch up. It's tough to know where to start.

Here's as good a place as any. One of our most impassioned community activists set off a firestorm recently with this article.

His point was to interrogate our latest neighborhood festival, an arts fair that traverses a two-mile stretch of our main retail corridor, using existing businesses, vacant storefronts, and outdoor spaces to display visual art, music, dance, gardening projects, and various forms of spontanous expression and culture jamming.

Cool, right? Maybe too cool. At least that was the point of this particular activist, who felt the festival strip was being tidily and intentionally divided in half: White hipsters on the more developed end, ethnic others on the more modest end. He called it "artPartheid," and he called it out.

I actually have a lot of respect for this activist. For years he's opened his home to display his own artwork, long before the mods and rockers landed in the neighborhood, serving as a trailblazer for the arts in this community. He's taught art to low-income children in the area. He's always been a spokesperson for diversity, integration, and loving one's neighbor.

He also was on the planning committee for the inaugural version of this festival, which took place last year, turning a tiny art-in-the-park concept into a vast and winding experiment in public intervention.

Then, a fallout between the activist and one of his very good friends, who was the other festival organizer. Then, a literal explosion of gentrification on the east end of the neighborhood despite a crushing recession. Then, the festival being handed over to a marketing company instead of the independent minds who'd hatched the concept in the first place. You can see why the guy would have a beef.

But I found myself wondering, was this the right beef?

I spent a lot of time last weekend walking those two miles of festival. On the grittier north side, I saw Latino art, hip-hop bands, a community mural, and DJ sets. On the glitzier south side, I saw Latino art (including several pieces by the activist himself), hip-hop bands, a community mural, and DJ sets.

Oh, the grittier north side also had the hipster craft market, two full days of ballet performance, an outsider-art exhibit curated by a wealthy eccentric, an independent film festival, a mural created by a group of invite-only street artists, and a much higher density of gallery spaces. The glitzier south side had long stretches of no art space at all, plus a community mural where anyone -- and I mean anyone -- could pick up a paintbrush and add to the pallette.

I will admit: The glitzier south-side music stage had an abundance of indy rock bands, while the northern stage was mostly jazz, soul, and bomba. But both sets of audiences were mixed, and the low turnout at each stage hardly privileged one setting over the other. The third stage in the center was a combination of influences, and the only one that charged admission.

Feeling confused? I guess that's the point.

There's a lot to dispute in our neighborhood these days. Gentrification is coming in like a wave, and rather than creating interventions to help keep development balanced and eclectic, policy is being used as an instrument to boost its homogeneity. Public schools are suffering. People need jobs. Kids are still shooting each other.

I guess in the midst of all this, making an argument about coded spaces at an arts festival, particularly when the codes seem jumbled from the outset, strikes me as stirring the wrong pot. Don't get me wrong: If his observations rang true, and the division between the powerful and powerless held up, I would've have seen this fest as the slippery slope. But in interesting ways, it actually bristled against where the neighborhood seems to be going. It brought value to what the market has devalued (like long-empty storefronts and wasted fields and parking lots). It seemed to integrate where the neighborhood wants to separate.

I have to give credit to this activist for starting the conversation, though. It's a dialogue we sorely need to be having if we don't want to become the next Wicker Park. I appreciate that people are paying attention.

All that said, my favorite festival installation wasn't planned by the outside marketing company and wasn't in any brochure. It was a makeshift swing someone hung from a tall steel railroad platform. Children and adults of every stripe stumbled upon it and took a go, laughing and swinging as the elevated train roared by overhead.

It was a good reminder to us all: In a world where time is charging forward, there's still room for simple, poignant, and decidedly human interventions, so long as we create them.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

One Final Postcard: From Peterhof

Our final afternoon in St. Petersburg (which now seems like a million years ago, like I might as easily have danced through the Russian woods with bears) was one I probably wouldn't have picked for myself. Our hosts wanted to give us one last taste of something splendid, so after our brief tour of the Hermitage, we boarded a boat for Catherine the Great's summer palace, in what was once her summertime refuge in Peterhof.

Peterhof is about a 45-minute boat ride from the city center. Getting there is a study in Russian urban planning. The move toward suburbanization hasn't taken hold in Russia, so the farther you go from the city, the more derelict the landscape becomes. The grounds of Peterhof are the exception, and the sheer amount of wealth that once accumulated there -- and the fact that the royal family claimed every inch of it for a massive, ornamented palace and its rolling grounds -- tells the tale. As does the working-class town that has taken shape around it, and the high iron fence that separates the two.

You pay to ride the boat. You pay again to enter the grounds. You pay to eat, and to tour any of the interior spaces of the palace. And boy, do people pay. Thousands of tourists arrive everyday for the privilege of walking the grand staircase to the palace, snapping photos, and wandering the gardens and fountains of what is often referred to as the Russian Versailles.

An exhausted Lev was along for the ride (he'd partied till dawn the day before), as was sweet Svetya, and wonderfully awkward Pasha, who practiced his English by shouting staccato words and pointing, making sure we didn't miss things. "Duck . . . duck!" he said, pointing to some waterfowl in a fountain. "Train!" he said, to the passing choo-choo carrying children from one garden to the next. "Finland!" to the land mass across the horizon as we departed the boat.

If I had a do-over for that day, I might've opted for a simple boat ride along St. Petersburg's canals, finding a little slow quiet in an otherwise frenetic city. Maybe I would've broken off from the group, walking through Vasilievsky Island, which is rumored to be sleepier and more residential than the rest of St. Petersburg. But had I done that, I would have missed taking virtually every form of transportation known to man (all tolled, we'd ridden boat, taxi, city bus, commuter train, local metro, and of course our own two feet that day; 13 hours later, we'd be on a plane). And I would've missed key moments with arguably the most important part of this entire trip: the people.

With that, I want to give the final words of this trip log to one of my favorite people from this visit -- beautiful Nastya, who shared overnight train berths with us and prompted that memorable nightcap in Nizhny Novgorod. This is from a note I received just after leaving Russia:

During our meeting and later I was thinking about importance of human sympathy and minimal meaning of national mentality. Let philosophers and politicians think about our differences, but I am sure that it was my great pleasure to have conversation with you, to understand you even feeling a lack of words.


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Postcard from St. Petersburg

Of course Moscow is known to be a fascinating city, and Russia has a storied history in art, in battle, and in politics. But they always say, the true showpiece of the country is St. Petersburg.

I went into my trip with exactly these expectations. St. Petersburg would be the final leg of the visit, and I imagined it would put an exclamation point on all that had come before it. Russia yes, but more beautiful, more lively, more culturally rich. We were to be there during the "white nights," and with at most two hours of darkness per night, the city never went to sleep.

I don't mean to look a gift metropolis in the mouth, and by no means is St. Petersburg ho-hum. Quite the opposite, in fact. Maybe, for my taste, too much the opposite. Architecture so ornate it's like a cityscape of wedding cakes. Tour busses clogging the streets, transporting people to Peterhof, the Hermitage, the Mariinsky Theater, or the Palace District. Souvenir stands and sushi restaurants around every corner.

I guess, for me, the city is somewhat overdetermined. Everywhere you look and listen, there's something. Something gilded, something blatant. It was a space I felt a little challenged to occupy. White nights, but no white space.

It was the kind of city with asphalt parking lots in front of its most treasured buildings. The kind of city where virtually every menu is translated into English. The kind of city where you might bump into Adrien Brody looking at art, then get yelled at by his bodyguard for taking what you think are surreptitious pictures.

More a European than a Russian city, in ways, though I'd never want to efface the Russian tenor of the place. It just felt like a city I'd visited before. I guess this might have been a comfort at some point in my life. For this trip, though, it left me hungering for my earlier experiences, which had jumbled up my roster a bit. I've never been to Asia, to Africa, or to South America, so Russia was pretty far afield to me. I liked feeling like I was in a different corner of the world. I liked it less when tour busses and movie stars maneuvered right into the center of it.

So what did I do? Well, I can admit this to you, since we're friends . . . but I bought souvenirs, I ate sushi, and I went to see "Swan Lake." Oh, and did I mention those snapshots I took of Adrien Brody at the Hermitage? In the end, it'd be plain old pretext to see myself as anything other than a tourist in Russia.

And maybe being a tourist is no bad thing, unless you do bad things with it. I'd like to think we escaped being ugly Americans, but who can say? It's the locals who get to make that call. One thing's for sure. We were hardly the only tourists in St. Petersburg.

One last note, before I put this to bed: I think it's important to embrace our inner tourist now and then, maybe especially in the places we actually live. It's equally important to imagine, even in a starstruck way, how it must be to live in the places we're lucky enough to visit.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Postcard from Laguna South, Chkalovsk Region

I know I've been fawning so far. The parks, the transport, the people of Russia! So lovely and pristine. So heartbreakingly perfect. Ok, CP, we get it: Everything's better in Russia. And true enough, I'd been gobstopped. But I hadn't yet been to "Laguna South."

We'd gone by taxi about a half hour from the hydrofoil landing strip. We were to stay that night in a new eco-lodge being developed by Maxim (the Ayn Rand enthusiast of the last post) as part of the tourism effort in the region.

I suppose it was a beautiful place. I'm no real fan of river environments -- have always prefered oceans and lakes -- but this was a placid setting dotted with high-end cabins and all the amenities: Fluffy down pillows, European baths, exposed wood, air conditioning, bike rentals, and an authentic Japanese spa on the premises.

You may remember that a storm had knocked out all the power in the area, the lodge no exception. We hauled our luggage up flights of stairs in the dark, then pulled back the curtains to let the last glimpses of natural light into our rooms. No air conditioning, naturally, so we opened all the windows, enough for swarms of hungry mosquitos to fly in through missing screens. Down went the windows.

Then, an unwelcome discovery: The plumbing was all electronically controlled, so we had neither running water nor flushing toilets. We bought the last of the bottled water from the front desk and used it sparingly to wipe the stickiness from our skin, hopeful for plumbing by morning.

The hotel managed to get the generator going for an hour and decided to open the spa. Guests headed in droves to our only source of light and water, stripping down to Turkish towels (we Americans), bikinis (Russian women), and postage-stamp Speedos (Russian men of various shapes and sizes). A former member of the British Parliament -- also a proud misogynist -- who'd tagged along with us all the way from Golitsyno decided to tag his way into the spa, fully clothed to our various states of undress, and carrying a half dozen warm beers, which he proceeded to drink on his own when he didn't find any takers. That was our cue to beat it out of there, and we fled to our rooms for a decent night's sleep.

In the morning, I took a jog in the murky air and bumped into Raul, a member of our American delegation, who pointed out a single ramshackle building on the outskirts of the grounds with a family still living there.

"Hotel workers?" I asked him.

"I was thinking last hold-outs," he said.

It was so plainly obvious I just hadn't seen it. Families had lived on this land before, of course. This entire settlement was the probable result of several brokered deals and one that apparently wouldn't be brokered. The goats and chickens weren't authentic additions; they were the remains of the day.

We were still without plumbing, so I dabbed my skin with last night's damp towel -- my bottled water was gone -- then headed down for the day's agenda. After a few hours of meetings in stifling rooms, it was, at last, time to leave Laguna South. Several of our Russian coutnerparts were staying behind, and they waited with us for our delayed taxis, courteous to the last.

Oh, with one exception . . .

A high-ranking member of the Higher School of Economics, who'd traveled with us to the lodge, had been drinking for the last several hours. He tripped over himself and slurred in broken English, then gyrated his hips, making suggestive comments to us, the American women, who struck him as easy prospects.

Our taxis pulled up just as a storm moved into the area. We spent the next 90 minutes in a series of small, outdated sedans, drivers chain smoking and passing cars on the wrong side of the road, nearly hydroplaning through sheets of water as cars sped toward us the opposite direction.

"I'm going to die here," I thought. Here in the middle of rural Russia, with my last memory being the stench of unflushed toilets and the pelvic thrusts of a soused director.

Suffice it to say we broke open more than a few Russian beers and celebratory chocolate bars in the berth of our overnight train. St. Petersburg was yet ahead of us, and a shiner on the eye of the trip was now mercifully in the past.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Postcard from the Weirdest Day of My Life

First, you need to imagine 11 people, American and Russian both, with luggage, looking at one ramshackle minivan, trying to figure out how to puzzle themselves into that confined space for a two-hour ride into the hinterlands. Like most things in Russia, it simply gets figured out. Guided by our driver, we crammed ourselves in, Tetris style, luggage on our laps or piled so high that the person sitting nearest had to push the bags back periodically to avoid being buried alive.

Outside our windows, smokestacks gave way to green gardens and heavy patches of forest, punctuated by the occasional gas station or frenetic roadside marketplace. We were headed to the Chkalovsk region, named for its most famous inhabitant, Valery Chkalov, who piloted the first non-stop flight from Russia to North America in 1937.

This is Russia's equivalent of Kitty Hawk, and we were visiting to observe one of our Russian colleague's working projects: An effort to build tourism in the region around this story of its local hero and its setting on the banks of the Volga. This colleague, Maxim (who repeatedly mentioned his love of Ayn Rand), was hosting an annual competition for local children to pay homage to Chkalov's legacy. Last year it was a writing contest. This year it was visual art.

We arrived to learn that a thunderstorm had moved through a couple days earlier. The village was remote enough that they were still awaiting the return of electricity. No matter, though. This was Russia, and they figure things out. There was perfectly adequate daylight for our sessions. The rest we'd think about later.

We were greeted by a shy tour guide in a fantastic pink pantsuit. She gave us a guided tour of Chkalov's family home, a tiny cottage with many original features in tact.

Then it was on to the aviation museum next door for the arts award ceremony. And that's when things became wonderfully, deliciously strange.

Sure, this was a local celebration that would have happened with or without our attendance. But the arrival of Americans was clearly something of a novelty. We were given VIP seats in the front row. Children giggled as they looked in our direction. They referred to the day as an "international event." And then, a town official, in the shiniest suit I've ever seen, sang us a song of welcome.

These young women did a drill-team routine in white go-go boots and vintage stewardess uniforms.

These children in full make-up sang a song of tribute to Chkalov, complete with choreography of arms outstretched like the wings of a plane.

Awards were handed out to the winners, including a special recognition for a pre-teen who connected aviation technology to the rise of the sport of motocross, and entered as her submission a dirty jacket and helmet positioned on a chair. To truly understand the wonder of such a thing, you should know that all the other pieces were either drawings or paintings of planes. The grand-prize winner explored the same themes in quilting.

From there, it was on to a tour of the village's main economic-development engine: an embroidery factory, where every stitch had once been done by hand -- we got a fascinating demonstration of those original methods -- but now, with waning demand for this traditional art form, they've been forced to turn to machines. In the last 10 years, the factory has eliminated 90% of its staff.

Our final stop was what had been, during WWII, a top-secret manufacturing facility for military aircraft. Russia makes no secret of national pride for its war endeavors, and rather than let this one disappear, they've repurposed the building and readapted its technology. Half is now a museum for old jets; the other half currently manufactures what they hope will be the linchpin of their tourism industry . . . The hydrofoil.

Each of us got a 15-minute tour along the Volga in this bad boy, which skimmed the surface of the water at high speed -- a breathless and breathtaking ride that town officials will eventually charge about $35 for, but we happily received with their compliments.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Postcard from Nizhny Novgorod

Russia's fourth largest city doesn't feel like a city at all. Nizhny Novgorod features cobblestoned streets, an active pedestrian corridor, and a three-story building profile at best. Oh, it also features children on sluggish ponies and a woman who carries an owl down the street. If not for all that open-air wildlife, it might feel more like Madison, or Galway -- certainly more like a small European town than a sizable Russian metropolis. We slowed our pace and breathed more easily. It was that kind of place.

We were there to meet with graduates of the State Higher School of Economics and learn about their development projects in the region. The city had certainly seen better days -- a struggling economy has hit Russia, as it has so many other places -- but I fell in love with Nizhny's shabby charms. I also fell in love with its microbrewery, where we were treated to lunch, and despite a full afternoon ahead of scheduled meetings, encouraged to enjoy a beer of our choice (I picked a rich, heady stout, which was served in a mug the size of a lunchbox).

That night, after a group dinner at a restaurant so uniquely appointed you're actually prohibited from taking pictures there, Nastya and Lev tried to rally folks for a digestive walk through town. One by one, early-bird Americans and convivial Russians alike, declined their invitation.

What the hell? I thought. When will I be in Russia again? When else will I receive such an earnest request? Off I went with two new friends and thick language barriers between us, just the evening air to glue us together.

The night was the perfect temperature, where you can feel the breeze on every hair of your skin but you don't quite need a sweater. The moon was clear over the steep hill we walked to reach the center of town, where women's heels clicked against stone pavers and people streamed in and out of restaurants and cafes. We ended up in a local tavern, and after the vodka we'd shared at dinner and a petite beer (I know my limits) at the bar, we loosened up and made our best attempts at communication. I have no idea if any of us truly understood the stories being told across that table, but we laughed deep, gutteral belly laughs, and we flirted a little, the way you do when you realize this is life, happening to me, this very second.

We left the bar after midnight, only to discover dark, deserted streets - it was Monday, and a work night for the area -- where we'd hoped to find a cab for the four miles back to the hotel. No luck.

With quick thinking and an uncharacteristic take-charge attitude, Lev flagged down the first car he saw, negotiated with the driver in Russian, and Nastya and I hopped in the back seat while Lev took the front. This will be a great story if I live to tell it, I thought. I'd basically just hitchhiked in Russia without speaking a word of the language except 'hello' and 'thank you,' which wouldn't have served me well in a worst-case scenario. I asked Nastya if this was common practice, and though I had to try out several different synonyms for 'common,' she finally replied, "Quite usual. Yes. Just not to do alone."

Sure enough, after a nice, smooth ride, we were safely back at the hotel. Lev handed the driver a few bills and exchanged pleasantries with him.

I realize I'm a person who needs to learn to say No. I tend to be overprogrammed, and I hate to let people down. But I'm also someone who needs an occasional Yes in my back pocket, especially to those things I tend to resist: spontaneity, late nights, situations beyond my control. My Yes served me well in Nizhny Novgorod.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Postcard from the Moscow Metro

A Moscow thunderstorm helped me to indulge one of my great loves of travel: Other cities' public transportation systems. Understandably, a ride through the Metro wasn't the first priority of my traveling companions -- we take the train every day in Chicago, after all -- but it was raining and they took the suggestion with aplomb. Off we went to seek the closest station as our starting point.

Down, down, down we descended (if you're a Russian with vertigo, you take the bus). Portions of the Moscow Metro were built during the Cold-War. The deep tunnels were to have served as a shelter in case of nuclear detonation.

For the American equivalent of $1.20, we hopped on the train, then off again, traveling from station to station to see what treasures were in store for us. In the oldest stations, proudly and lovingly restored, you can't miss the twin themes of Russian nationalism and architectural extravagance. Mosaics, stained glass, bronze sculpture, terra-cotta ceiling detail, and portraits of Lenin decorate these underground troves of commuter activity. It's enough to mark a transit enthusiast for life.

It all reminded me of an incident from several years ago, long before my transit fixations took hold. I'd been asked to escort the writer Grace Paley on a visit to the University of Kansas. We were talking about New York City, her home base, and I told her that when I traveled there, I always avoided the subway because I wanted to stay above ground, among the life of the city.

"Oh, but Christy," she rightly corrected me. "The subway *is* the life of the city."

Gracy Paley would have been at home in Moscow.