Zombie Stores

matt_meagan_zombies_smallHalloween is my favorite holiday, it always has been.

Part of the lead up to Halloween of course involves not only costume shopping, but generally trolling (hah) among halloween stores to see what beauties they’ve come up with this year. I choose to pretend the travesty of inflatable decorations do not exist, but otherwise, most Halloween decorations can’t be to cheesily spooky for my taste. Motion activated hand in a bowl, fake flaming cauldrons, strobe lights, it’s ALL good.

zombies_3You can usually get a good dose of Halloween gloom at craft stores and fabric stores. Novelty stores like Hot Topic, Spencers, and their smaller counterparts are always good for some unique creepy items. Of course the big box stores like Walmart and Target usually dedicate a decent sized section to “seasonal” items.
For the most pleasantly overwhelming experience though, the best source is a dedicated Halloween store. The quality of these stores varies, but you’re pretty much assured to be surrounded by grey, black and orange props, often extensively enough to spend hours giggling over fake corpses and daggers.

zombies_2Even in the “higher end” versions of these stores you’ll be hard pressed to find anything not made of plastic, they tend not to have anything particularly fine, but that’s really not the point. While a store full of Christmas decorations can probably cause a tinsel seisure, oversaturation of Halloween decorations just produces little kid giddiness.

I’m always curious about these stores though. In recent years they’re HUGE, the size of a Best Buy or a Target, because often they’re in a building that used to BE a Best Buy or a Target. Often the very same shelves that previously held decorative pumpkin scented candles, now hold… decorative pumpkin scented candles.

You don’t find this sort of retail recycling for any other holiday or event. Halloween stores are almost universally in previously empty buildings whose previous residents went out of business anywhere from 6 months to 6 years ago. Then on November 1st they’re gone without a trace like Mr. Elvis’s Magic Shop, leaving the boarded up shell in their wake.zombies_4

As much as I love these stores, I find this a little disconcerting. It seems like these stores rely on a failing economy for their existence. I’m not trying to make some political statement, revealing Halloween stores as soulless opportunists, it just seems weird. It is, appropriately, creepy.

zombies_5Where are the stores when there is not an abundance of empty buildings? Living in the Steel Belt, it’s hard to imagine this being a problem. I can’t see Halloween stores having a hard time finding a spot any time soon. But what happens on the highly hypothetical day that Cleveland’s economy explodes? Do these stores just disappear?

I don’t think so. I think they find a place where there was no space before. On a previously empty wall, a door glowing at the edges with evil smelling fake fog. A construction site completed overnight, then bulldozed again next month. Maybe a derelict house on the corner turns on a neon sign and starts selling ghosts. You follow a black cat and realize you’re lost in a part of town you’ve never seen before, and that you’ll never find again.zombies_6

How else COULD it be? It’s Halloween.

Blah blah blah blahb. Blah balh balh alh alkjek lakwje. Bewok bkjokw alek.

Posted by Meagan in bulidings, commentaries, 3 comments

Slinking Suburbs

bballI heard a story on NPR the other day (ok, maybe the other week) about a weird trend in recent post bubble real estate, where realtors pay ACTORS to pretend to be neighbors in suburbs, with staged barbecues and invitations to nonexistent little league games, so that an empty neighborhood would seem to have people living there on Open House day. The feeling I got from the story, and that I get hearing people talk about suburbs in general, is that does not just represent the dishonesty of some realtors, it is an example of an atmosphere of duplicity that is increasingly associated with the suburbs in general.

housesWhy does everyone hate the suburbs? Why have the suburbs come to represent all that is evil, all that is fake, soccer moms and security moms and helicopter parents and materialism? This annoys me, because as Matt and I start looking for a house I find myself having to defend our choice to look in pure suburbia.

Really I know the whys. One of the first culprits is Tim Burton. More specifically, Edward Scissorhands. I’m sure this movie wasn’t the first vision of suburban sameness, but the uniformly green grassed sameness has come to be part of popular consciousness, whether people realize it or not. The creepy echoes in Buron’s invented neighborhood are a fairly accurate reflection of many developments in post 1960s America, but they just as well describe the world of Camazots from Madeleine L’Engle‘s A Wrinkle in Time. Not exactly positive associations, as was clearly intended.

eugene1And that’s fine. The artificiality being satired in Edward Scissorhands absolutely exists, and it can often be found in the suburbs. The problem I have is with the modern assumption that the suburbs are the cause. I grew up in Eugene, Oregon, a small enough city that it might as well be a suburb of itself. In my memory I lived in two different houses that were both cookie-cutter floorplans resulting from Eugene’s relatively rapid expansion. In spite of this supposed “sameness,” there was NEVER during my childhood, any sense of conformity in the homes around me. I’ve seen developments where the only difference from one house to the next is the paint color or a window shape, or a brick pattern. In the neighborhoods where I grew up, there was no need to fight for differentiation, because in spite of the repeated architecture, there was no standard look that the residents needed to fight against or conform to.eugene2

The sameness we find, I think comes from desire rather than actual similarities. The reason is not the location (suburbs), it’s that keeping-up-with-the-Joneses race that probably helped get us into the whole real estate mess in the first place. I need a bigger, more perfect house, because the neighbors have one. He needs a BMW because his cousin just bought one. It’s stupid, and it has nothing to do with a place, it has everything to do with people.

windmillMatt and I eventually want to live in a house with a bit of land around it, in a safe neighborhood, with decent schools (since we’ll eventually be having kids) and less than an hour commute to the city. These are really not ridiculous wants, and the obvious answer, the only answer, is the suburbs. We hope to keep a garden that grows as much of our food as possible, maybe put up some solar panels or even small windmills, to keep energy costs down. I grew up with a backyard and I want my kids to have one too. We’d like some sort of woodland nearby. Basically, we want a compromise between urban and rural living.

If the human race is to survive into the 23th century, or the 30th century, I imagine someday we’ll all end up living in cities. This is (or could be) the most sustainable way to live, and at some point we won’t have a choice. In suburbs, people use hours worth of gas daily getting to and from work, burn up heat in poorly insulated homes, and spend gallons of water on uselessly green lawns. Maybe that’s why living in the suburbs is so detestable: the seizing of privacy, of space, of control and resources may well be selfish. I am occasionally drawn to the idea of living in an urban environment, with rooftop gardens and shops downstairs. There is appeal, until I remember that I can’t breathe after a few hours in New York, that I get itchy when I hear my neighbors through paper-thin walls, that the only thing I would own of the outside is a door. Someday I hope, large buildings will be planned with more public space, more green space, more space in general to keep us sane. Right now urban living is fun for some, but not a life I can imagine.

Ultimately, the life I’m seeking may not be sustainable. Suburbs, and most rural life, may fade away as energy sources dwindle and people are forced to huddle together for conservation. My response to that is to try and make a life with as small a footprint as possible, mainly to assuage the guilt that we’re contributing to the problem. I do think it’s possible to enjoy living in a dense population, I just don’t think it’s possible for me, today. I can only hope that by the time we have no choice, urban designers have come up with ways to make living wall to wall more tolerable.

*First photo by Wildernice, all others by me.

Posted by Meagan in bulidings, commentaries, design, life, 8 comments

The Other Cathedral

Matt and I made sure to get to the National Cathedral when we were in DC this May.
church_16I’ve been there before, when I was twelve on a school trip in middle school.

church_10Actually I based a lot of my suggestions of sights we should see in DC on things I’d seen while on that middle school trip. I think we were there for a week, and we saw far more than I could have retained. I guessed however, that anything which DID stick in my memory from that trip was probably worth seeing. After all, most 12 year olds are more interested in hanging out with friends than seeing national monuments.

Probably the most memorable images from that first trip were our tours of the cathedrals in Washington DC. I thought there were several, now I’m not sure how many we went to see. Definitely more than just the National Cathedral.

church_11Matt and my mom and I went to the National Cathedral first, because that was the only cathedral we could find any information on.

church_15In a way, we picked a bad day. We got there at about noon on a day where tours were canceled until one. The reason for this was interesting: there was a graduation in progress.

The National Cathedral has two high schools associated with it– a boy’s school and a girl’s school. On the day we visited, the girl’s school was having their graduation mass. I don’t know if they call it mass at the National Cathedral, which is (I think) Episcopalian. I went to a Catholic school and we called it mass. It made me think of all the small prayer services and holiday masses, and I wondered whether they had them all in the cathedral, vast and beautiful.

church_12It must have been an amazing place to have a graduation. We stood and back and waited until it was done. There couldn’t have been more than fifty girls, so the whole thing seemed rather quiet, and more relaxed than I would have expected for the setting. It was lovely. The architecture of the cathedral makes it a fascinating setting for any service, or just to walk through.

church_13They have continual tours, and though we waited until one for the first tour to begin, we ended up wandering without it, which I think was more enjoyable, if less informative.

church_14We got a vantage point that I never saw on my first tour, because the upstairs floor would be too cramped to bring a large group. I remember being a bit disappointed in the cathedral as a 12 year old, because I’d wanted to see the gargoyles and grotesques, but couldn’t see any close enough to really see them. From the upstairs observatory we could see much better, not to mention a great view of the surrounding area. There’s no doubt that the National Cathedral is awe inspiring. An exhibit on the main floor told us that it took almost a hundred years (83 actually) to build. I didn’t realize when I visited in 1993, construction had only just finished three years ago.

What I really remembered from my first trip was that while the National Cathedral was the stone worked gothic arches that you envision when you hear the word “cathedral,” it wasn’t the one that struck me as most beautiful.

church_4None of the local advisors seemed to know what I was talking about when I mentioned another cathedral, a place full of mosaics and side chapels. For some reason it took us half the week to find the Cathedral of St. Matthew.

church_9St Matthew’s is a Catholic cathedral, and like many Catholic buildings walks the line between beautiful and gaudy. Churches lined with gold tend to annoy me, the overt expense reminds me of a time of dishonestly rich cardnals and popes.

St. Matthews manages to avoid that feeling, though I imagine the piles of marble used must have cost every bit as much as gold plating. Everything is so colorful that it’s almost distracting.

church_7Not quite though. Unlike the flashiness of gold, marble is beautiful but understated, expensive but not braggingly so. The cathedral is full of skillful beauty, with marbled alters tucked away in side corners, and mosaics lined up on the walls like paneling. I could have looked at the art of this cathedral for hours, but Matt and I decided we’d better make it quick instead.

church_1Unlike the National Cathedral, St. Matthews is not so orderly a tourist attraction. I imagine they give tours (I went on one when I was 12) but when we walked in, the building was silent with worshipers. We tiptoed around the perimeter, trying not to disturb anyone. At one point my camera flashed (it turns it back on every time the camera restarts) but I mostly covered it.

church_5I’m sort of conflicted over whether this building should be more of a tourist attraction. On one hand, it’s an amazing sight. I suppose construction probably didn’t take 83 years, and the type of beauty is completely different from the majestic depth of the National Cathedral. Spanish rather than French maybe. The difference I see is that the National Cathedral is a coherent masterpiece, while St. Matthew’s is a gallery of brilliant mosaics. It’s not that they clash, it’s just that they are meant to be seen one at a time, up close. In prayer I suppose, though as a non-believer, I’ll have to appreciate it for artistic value alone.

church_6It seems a shame that more people don’t know about St. Matthews, but on the other hand, part of the beauty may well be it’s quiet. So nice to walk in and see people meditating, praying, thinking, believing, instead of chatting and taking photos. I think they try at the National Cathedral to retain a sense of holiness, they remind you to please be respectful and speak in lowered voices, but they tell you in a tour-guide yell, so it’s hard to take it seriously.

St. Matthew’s is a church first and foremost. I love it because it’s beautiful, but I’m not sure it would be quite so beautiful if it weren’t so respectfully hushed.

church_3The two cathedrals can’t be fairly contrasted. Stone work vs. marble. Architecture vs. mosaics.

church_2One area where you ought to be able to make a straight comparison are the stained glass windows.

In the National Cathedral, each window is different, with a separate burst of color and composition. Oddly, in St. Matthew’s, where each nook and cranny is individually crafted, the windows are very nearly identical. The windows in St. Matthews seem to be made of impossibly thin marble pieces (either that or painted glass to look like impossibly thin marble pieces). The variety of windows in the National Cathedral is breathtaking, but I couldn’t pick a winner between the two.

I’m glad I saw both. For the National Cathedral I’d say it’s worth taking out an hour or more. At St. Matthew’s we felt disruptive, and left after 20 minutes, which was enough to see everything since the space is so much smaller. I won’t claim St. Matthew’s is prettier, or more impressive than the National Cathedral, but I am surprised that one is almost unknown to tourists while the other is a visitor staple.

Posted by Meagan in bulidings, travel, 4 comments