I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of the artist in the community. These days I’m especially interested in what it means in terms of this concept of sustainability. We all know that the old models, especially in my industry (music) are crumbling around us. Everyone is trying to figure out what the new models will be. My thought has long been that maybe we should be looking back in time, aiming at cycling back to something older, something pre-dating post-industrial market-capitalism. Something based in a connection with community.
Tonight I just stumbled on a blog post that speaks to all this, and resonates with the direction I hope to go. I am sending this out to all my current and former students, because the thesis is something I believe provides a baseline for the kind of sustainability that we all are seeking.
I was in Chandler, Arizona last week. On a September morning I stepped outside my friend’s house to make a phone call (long story about lack of cell-reception inside the house). I looked around. No-one to be seen. Admittedly it was 101 degrees, but that didn’t make the view of the deserted street in the new suburb any less daunting.
I wonder how this became someone’s idea of a city: Identical bland subdivisions stretching for miles and miles. Camouflage beige brick walls shielding them from the street. Each house a duplicate of the one next to it. 3-car garages in lieu of front porches.. It’s not a neighborhood, it’s a cluster of nondescript pods surrounded by five foot high walls. They are spacious and comfortable pods, no argument there–they have flat panel televisions, KitchenAid refrigerators, surround sound and all the modern day staples, as well as family pictures and homey touches. But they hermetically sealed to the outside. They have no shared spaces, no outward side of inner life, no color, no welcome. And they don’t make a community. Not even Identical CVS Drugstores on every other southeast corner and Mini-mails full of franchise chains on every other northwest corner can make it so.
This was not the vision.
Chandler was founded by Dr. Alexander John Chandler. In 1887 Dr. Chandler arrived in Prescott, the capital of the Arizona Territory as the first appointed veterinary surgeon to the region. According the Chandler Chamber of Commerce website: “Unfortunately, the entire southwest was experiencing a severe drought. Dr. Chandler found that he was unable to help the area’s cattle herds and resigned his post and made plans to move on to California. However, as he arrived in the small frontier town of Phoenix, a deluge of rain began to fall that halted all travel. Dr. Chandler watched from his hotel room as the desert blossomed into a fantastic array of renewed life. The doctor, moved by what he saw and the possibilities it foretold, reconsidered his resignation and canceled his departure. Seeing the great changes that the rain brought to the parched soil, Dr. Chandler began to learn about irrigation methods. Returning with the financial backing of two Detroit friends, Dr. Chandler formed the Consolidated Canal Company. When the Granite Reef Dam to the southeast of Phoenix was completed in 1908, water from the Salt River was available for all canals to the south. Thousands of acres were put under cultivation, but there was still not enough water to keep the land from remaining dry. In 1911, the Roosevelt Dam was completed, but each landowner was restricted to irrigating only 160 acres. Dr. Chandler was forced to subdivide his nearly 18,000 acre ranch and he began to advertise and marker his land to draw settlers to the area. He hired a city planner and an architect to design a planned community with spacious lots, wide boulevards and a town green unique to the Southwest.”
Ironically, Chandler was inspired by the city beautiful movement. A late 19th century idea that believed that a beautiful city would create harmony and improve quality of life.
So how did that vision become this?
Even more significantly, I ask myself, as an artist, how can community possibly flourish here, with no bridge to the outside world? How do I reach these people? Not with homogenized pop radio, cable television, NPR or Facebook–but with what is happening under there very noses. How do I draw them out of their pods to experience local music or theater? How do I put them in relationship to the painters, poets, potters, woodworkers, glass blowers and jazz musicians who could make their homes, their lives and their community richer.
Tell me. How do we build community in a place like Chandler? How do we get people to think outside the pod–If only as far as to add some color other than tan, beige or gray to their exterior walls? The desert can still bloom. But we can’t just leave it up to the flowers.