Monday, September 6, 2010

My Favourite Buildings (and me)

     The Bedlam Theatre recently had it's last romp a few days ago.  I'm not sure how they lost the building, but I had heard some rumors that the building was going to be taken down to be turned into a parking lot.  I agree with Niels Strandskov that the value of the institution goes beyond the simple existence of a building, but I have to confess that I will miss that building.  Compared to the rather squalid first building of the organization, the replacement was a much more inviting theatrical space.  (Let's be honest, the simple existence of multiple working bathrooms accomplished this.)  With the inclusion of the bar and restaurant, upstairs space, and porch, the space could almost be called eloquent.  You could look out at the Downtown skyline from the porch/deck area, which was a spectacular view.

     My involvement with Bedlam has always been quite limited even as a customer, but the closing of the building reminded me of the loss of other radical institutions in the Twin Cities.  Most recently, we lost the North Country co-op and the Arise! bookstore collective, but if we move farther into the history of the cities, the list gets longer.  I can come up with several off the top of my head, The New Riverside Cafe, The Emma Center, and any number of non-profit musical venues.  I suspect that you could probably expand that list considerably by talking to an older veteran of the activist community such as Mike Whalen.  I'd like to say that these institutions 'haunt' the terrain of the cities, but all too often, they simply disappear.  The people involved in those projects remember them, but their memory is erased from the reproduction of the community.  As  a simple example, I doubt many new anarchists even know that the Emma Center existed, let alone know of its politics, contradictions, and problems.

     I would like to see more records of this history.  There was an interesting project dealing with the West Bank counter-culture in the 1960's and 1970's that came out recently.  Why not produce something similar dealing with radical institutions?  I would really love to read something on the history of the North Country Co-op, and perhaps something on Arise! that moved beyond Mike's issues with the issue.  The need for this material goes beyond simple nostalgia.  I think that there is a lot we can learn from in the often abject failures that occurred in these institutions.  There is some material dealing with the Co-op Wars, and the political and personal conflicts that arose out of that period.  But I never saw the kind of critical engagement with the material in a way that would reflect on our practices, our capacity for violence, and our ability to produce personality cults.  Within that spirit, I would love to see some discussion on the relationship of the primarily white Emma Center and its neighbors of color, and at some point, the big fights in the Arise! Collective.  Perhaps at some point, we can break out of the simple nostalgia/polemic binary.

     But beyond that, I also want to recognize my simple desire for the institutions that shaped me to have some sort of formal record.  The Emma Center was the first political project that I was involved in.  It pushed me out of a white, suburban shell of a world in a larger, more vibrant, political world, which has demanded that I confront the assumptions that I built in that shell.  I can still remember sitting and listening to the sophisticated conversations between Shawn DeCentral, Jeff Subhumyn, and Max Sparber that were just out of my reach.  We would share black bean hummus and bagels that we bought from the little co-op across the street, and I gradually was introduced into the conflicts and polemics of the anarchist sub-culture.  I also had to deal with a set of conflicts and polemics that were completely alien to me.  The split between The Emma Center and Profane Existence had a lot to do with my exodus from the punk sub-culture that had brought me to the collective, for instance.  But I couldn't have explained to you the differences between the Blast and Emma Center, or the complex debates around the Love and Rage federation.

     Not all of my memories fell into that political terrain, though.  My favorite memory of the place was Shawn's effort to paint the floor.  The Emma Center had a truly disgusting and dingy wood floor, and Shawn had decided to paint it.  He got some blue paint one night, and went to work.  However, at the end of the job he had literally painted him into a corner.  I think he had to paint himself out of the building.  (The floor actually looked pretty good after that effort.)  Those small tasks often were often significant to me.  For instance, I remember fixing a light with Shawn at one point, learning how to deal with neighborhood kids, and the politics of the center's daycare project.  Finally, for all the conflict and mean-spiritedness between members (and it was pretty awful at times), I really remember the patience that people had for my bullshit, and the willingness to offer informal mentoring (I really credit this mostly to Shawn, but I think that I had a positive experience with everyone at the collective.)

     In any case, I think that I have taken the sentimentality wagon about as far as I am going to take it.  I'm supposed to be critically analyzing melodrama, not reproducing it.  It's also worth mentioning that the Arise! project is going to be taking a new form with Boneshaker Books and I'm sure that we're going to see a version of Bedlam that will put the old building to shame (although, I suspect nothing will surpass that view.)  To conclude, my interest in these radical institutions ties into a larger interest in historical memory.  I always thought it would be interesting to produce a kind of historical archaeology of the Twin Cities area, that would allow for an exploration of the many layers of history in the area.  For me, this came out of thinking about places that were significant to me that have closed, the Emma Center, but also old record shops and places I used to frequent.  But it struck me that there are larger issues that the project could take on.  For instance, it could provide a record of the historically Black neighborhoods that were destroyed by the interstate freeway system, or the institutions built by the 1934 general strike.  I would like to see these micro and macro narratives placed together in the collective project.  Of this, enough.

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