Friday, July 24, 2009

The Eyes Have It

Ogden, I apologize. I didn't mean to imply that you are a worse place than Salt Lake City.

Today was Pioneer Day in Ogden--and, for all I know, in all of Utah. This meant a pancake breakfast on the town square:

And also a parade:

Overall downtown Ogden is a curious mix. There's a lot of unoccupied property--from a dozen-story Wells Fargo tower to a doughnut shop that's lost literally everything but its sign. But there are also some pockets that seem to be thriving--nice parks, a pleasant amphitheater, some interesting-looking restaurants, shops, etc. There's also a fairly new rail connection to Salt Lake City and a great collection of old trains at Union Station (unlike the fakey-fake replicas on their toy tracks out at Golden Spike National Monument).

What I wonder about, though, is the straitjacketing sameness of the concept of a "good community." Sure, people like towns with boutiques and open space and reasonably friendly folks who come out to watch cheerleaders, horses, and old cars go by--but there's something merely aesthetic about it. The parallel that came to mind today (after our Spiral Jetty experience yesterday) was the turn in modern art that came with the work of Marcel Duchamp, away from the dominance of "the optical." With the rise of different strains of conceptual art, what an artwork looked like sometimes became a secondary quality, and greatness in art came to be measured as much or more by how "smart" or self-aware or discursive (in the sense of how it related to other works and other ideas) a piece was than by what it actually looked like per se. The idea of Spiral Jetty is in some ways the better part of its attraction. The same is true of Donald Judd's cubes and bars, which are attractive for their pursuit of precision and the way that they draw attention to the interaction of the artistic gesture and machined fabrication.

These pieces don't have the same meaning without some reflection on the why and the how of them. The same, I think, is true of places. If Ogden is defined by what's on 25th St. from Union Station over to Washington Boulevard, it's a success: socially, economically (mostly), historically, and in terms of design. But these lovely "optical" qualities aren't the whole of the town--and it could be argued that whatever investment went into this stretch (for historical markers, landscaping, etc.) might have gone to better overall use elsewhere. I don't know Ogden well enough to say. But I do know that towns across America do make substantial and often ill-advised investments based on the dominant model of optical success--as when a community decides to create a pedestrian mall because the one in Boulder, Colorado, is so pleasing, whether or not a mall is actually what their community needs. We got a whiff of this in Boise, where there was plainly a crafted area of downtown carved out of the rest of downtown that has been designed to be strollable, retail-friendly, easy to park near, and lush with grass and plantings. We avoided it like chlamydia.

After we'd seen enough of the Ogden parade (hello, Peach Queen!), we headed down to Salt Lake City to see the Mormon Temple area. All we wanted to see was the green roof on the conference center. This picture is looking out from it toward the Wasatch Range, which we cannot seem to get away from:

Unfortunately, we had to submit to a 45-minute evangelical tour, in which we learned primarily that Mormons believe all sorts of things that we don't. Good and irked, we then went out in search of lunch; here we learned that (a) SLC does not appear to have a lot of readily evident mixed-use districts; and (b) there isn't much life at all evident near the university. We finally landed at Lotus Thai, on 500 S, where papaya salad, drunken noodles, and cold caffeinated drinks made everything look better and better and better.

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