This week I started my part of finishing the Backyard Industry video series.
The biggest/hardest parts of this process, for me, are the writing of the episode and the logging of the footage. We shot a bunch of footage of people’s chicken coops last summer – here’s my friend/neighbor/now-mother-of-Cliff, Colleen, talking about their setup:
I think Tim and I would agree that the way we’ve ended up working together on these things has been less than optimum for a lot of reasons; the overall lack of time sucks, but also the way we’ve divided up the workload (based mainly on skillsets, but also priorities/time) means that we each have our specific, siloed area of work. We rarely work together outside of the shoot itself. If we had it to do all over again, I think both of us would prefer to work more collaboratively from start to finish, but it’s also been a good experience with so many lessons learned. SO MANY LESSONS, Y’ALL. Anyway, we’re looking forward to finishing the series and moving into spring at about the same time. I’m pretty excited about spring, although… I still haven’t ordered my seeds. Am I OK?
My brain is wired in such a way that I have to write stuff down or I’ll forget it.
Occasionally I look at my notes and am perplexed. What the hell does that even mean? Was I asleep when I wrote this or what? I’m always writing little blurbs to myself about possible topics to cover here and eventually on the podcast, which I’m still planning to get to when the weather turns. Here are some of them:
The demise/”resurrection” of Modern Farmer magazine
At some point I’ll write a long piece about farmers markets and why I think they’re so important and it’s not just about food for me
The difference between being enveloped in a culture like a blanket and being part of the actual fabric of the culture itself – being the blanket, I guess – in the contexts of isolation and inclusiveness
How neighborhoods, and conversations among neighbors and small business owners are rarely part of the “brand” of most places that we see. Individuals, households, towns/areas are more connected with other individuals, households, and towns/areas than ever before, but getting out and conversing IRL is crucial; otherwise the “brands” dominate the conversation and places/people are not being represented truthfully. This happens all the time and everywhere and I’m not thinking up some new thought or anything, but I was struck by a conversation I had with two friends the other night, quite by chance, where this was apparent – the difference between what the 3 of us know to be true, what we see happening, vs various “talking points” we all hear – was amazing. The dominant narrative is so rarely what’s actually happening, and people do know this, and it erodes trust. Get out there and talk about it!
UGH, I’m all over the place. I should finish that shopping list and procure supplies before our (seriously downgraded) “weather event” makes its way here. But first… a little bit of LOTSA (Lisa’s Open Tabs Saved Aggressively):
I found myself checking out the Lexington Market in Baltimore
I like analytics
And digital marketing stats, I like those too
Just like that, summer has gone.
This photo takes me back, though, to April. Tim and I ventured over on a nice day to the home of Jill Miller, batik artist extraordinaire and owner of Hooey Batiks, to shoot part of what would eventually become Backyard Industry video #3, “Bunch of Hooey”.
Jill’s work has been a source of local amazement for a long time. Sometime back in the late 1990s, I was driving along Race Street in Urbana, and almost got into an accident because the sight of what seemed to be a zillion jewel-toned garments being hung on a double clothesline by an all-business lady was so incredibly distracting. She lived on the corner of Race and California back then; what better advertising than a living billboard featuring incredible work? I didn’t know her then.
Now she lives a street over from me, in a neighborhood we sometimes refer to as the Lynn-Wabash Nexus or the Pre-Historic East Urbana Neighborhood (PHEUN). We’ve become friends. We’ve made sausage together, we’ve talked about chickens ad nauseam, we’ve cooked for each other here and there (more her for me, sadly). We have a lot in common. Seeds, gardens, food, chickens, cookbooks, dessert. But she’s been making her art all this time, too, and in the last five years (more?), many of her batiked designs have shown off food, animals, plants, and neighborhood activities. Bluebells and morels. Pears. Cherries. Chickens and chicks. Pigs. Weber grills. Corndog fairies. Cornhole boards. When I look at her food-related work, I see conviviality and community and our neighborhood, and I love it.
Here’s why we decided to feature her work in a BYI video: We’re all used to seeing food as art everywhere through all kinds of media. Food has been painted and drawn and sculpted for millennia. Food has been photographed for publication (often regrettably) and now food is Instagrammed. We’re surrounded by images of the food we eat (or that others eat), but often it’s without a discernible personal touch. Jill’s batiked shirts and skirts and table runners and scarves and dresses lend a window into her world that also looks like our world. It’s not aspirational; it’s what’s there, unadorned and unassuming and very important. She does all the work out of her house – the designing, the batiking, the dyeing, the washing, and the hanging out on the line. It’s all personal. Not only has she touched everything she makes – she’s thought about it. The same goes for her corndogs, which are legendary. Here. I’ll show you.
[Did you watch all the way to the end? Bloop bloop.]
One last thing: BYIV3 is dedicated to Violet the Cat, who just wanted a little cheese and maybe some charcuterie from Smoking Goose, that’s all. It’s also dedicated to Fausto the Dog, who was there that day (though is not in the video) and just wanted to sniff everyone’s drink. RIP, friends.
Back in the summer of 2007, which seems forever ago, I was fond of walking the alleys in east Urbana, which is also where I’ve lived, with my family, for almost 10 years.
These aren’t the streetscaped alleys of downtown Urbana, the ones that have been paved and named and placemade with wrought iron archways and signage. Some are used traditionally – for deliveries to businesses. Others are blocked to vehicular traffic entirely and are used instead as seating areas, dining areas, etc. The alley between the Courier Café and Pizza M/Flying Machine Coffee boasts a huge mural painted by a local artist. Some walls have been tagged, others graffiti’d with stencil art. Basically, they’re public spaces providing shortcuts, a place to take a smoke break, and general respite in a small downtown area.
The alleys of east Urbana are un- or under-paved – they’re quaint, mostly-forgotten leftovers from the last century. Some are still used as thruways for cars. Others are choked with weeds and come to complete, unannounced dead ends. Back in 2007, the alleys in east Urbana were awesome for a slightly nosy person like me – here was this fascinating array of brief avenues letting me see what was behind the houses and small apartment buildings! Yeah, yards and gardens and garages, obviously, but I could also check out, up close, the kept spaces, the bits of earth between the alley and the garage that were planted with flowers like hollyhocks and sunflowers, trees providing shade and a natural archway, the occasional chicken coop. I took lots of photos.
Over the long weekend, I went back to the alleys for the first time in 7 years. I started off a few blocks from my house and ran into a gentleman mowing the part of the alley that was directly behind his house, a cute little bungalow with a well-kept backyard. He shut off his mower and we started to chat. He wasted no time in telling me that the neighborhood (for him, his neighborhood comprised a couple blocks) was “going down” and had been for over two decades. He talked about a couple of drug houses that had been busted recently and remained vacant, how neighbors weren’t keeping up their properties, that people didn’t want to live in east Urbana anymore. I asked him where people were going, if they were moving. No, he said, people who had lived for decades in the neighborhood were passing away and the homes were then bought and rented out by landlords. He told me that people making what he considered a “good income” were choosing to buy homes elsewhere. I was curious as to how he defined a good income, so I asked. His answer: Household income of 50K a year. This was interesting to me, as buying a home in many other neighborhoods in Urbana would likely require a household income of at least twice that, not to mention that east Urbana, in my circle, is seen as a desirable place to live – affordable, diverse, and neighborly. He went on to tell me that people in the neighborhood have chickens, which he didn’t understand. “If you want to live in the country, live in the country,” he said. Ah, then. I told him I had to be on my way, shook his hand, and thanked him for his time. His mower roared to life behind me as I headed down the alley.
I was a bit deflated after this encounter, and what I saw in the alleys as I walked through several neighborhoods seemed to prove Alley Mowing Guy correct. Many of the gardens that had existed 7 years ago were gone. Several fruit trees had been cut down. There were no grapevines lining back chain link fences. Few flowers had been planted on purpose, though there were still perennials like daylilies and prairie sunflowers along some fences. There were no chicken coops. A dead, bloated animal lay in the middle of one alley, buzzing with flies. There were many more tall privacy fences and more mean (well, mean-sounding) dogs. Some fences were broken, and there was a fair amount of trash and abandoned furniture, though this could easily be attributed to the fact it was the first day of the month at the beginning of the school year in a Big Ten university town.
That’s not to say that there weren’t some good finds – alley raspberries were still around, there was still one apple tree, and a beautiful line of alliums were flowering and attracting dozens of pollinators. Squash and tomatoes had found their way outside fences. There was still plenty of beauty and food to look at and to discover.
Yes, the change that had taken place over the 7 years since my last visit was noticeable and unsettling and took up a lot of my brain space as I walked. I wondered about the vacant, uncared-for homes I saw. I wondered if the City ever talked about paving and/or gently placemaking the alleys as a way to encourage residents to explore the history of east Urbana. I thought about the reduced number of gardens I’ve noticed in town over the last few years, and I wondered why that might be, and then I thought about the Great Recession, which came along a year after I stopped walking the alleys. I thought about the increase in the sheer amount of stuff we seem to have acquired since 2007. And I thought about the advent of smart phones – the iPhone was introduced in June 2007 – and how that has changed, quite literally, EVERYTHING, including our concept of leisure time.
And then I thought about people proudly buying or renting their first homes in east Urbana – like we did in 2005 – and wondered how they feel about their neighborhood. Do they think it’s in decline? Are they there to reclaim it? Are they moving in for the long haul or is it a quick stop on the Upward Mobility Trail?
I’m seeing a renaissance, myself. Maybe someday Alley Mowing Guy will see it, too.
East central Illinois is firmly into 2014’s version of spring; some days it seems like summer (it was over 90 degrees just over a week ago) and others it seems like late winter (it was 38 degrees a few nights ago, making for a chilly morning). Saturday before last, the full B-K clan (Cody was even home) were at the Illiac Music Festival in downtown Urbana, sweating it out with the hula-hoopers and everyone else. By Wednesday, we were suffering through Lilly’s soccer team’s loss to a much-loathed rival in unfortunate 45 degree/windy/rainy weather. Even Saturday was kind of crummy – chilly and clouds threatening to take over, though the farmers market was bright with spring food, including strawberries from a couple hours south of here.
But by 5 PM it had cleared off and the sun had warmed things a little and suddenly it seemed a fine night for a crawfish boil.
It was a lovely evening at Douglas’ sweet abode, but having partied ourselves out at Prairie Fruits Farm, followed by some hilarity at our friends the Hxes the night before, Jim and I were in bed by 10, dreaming of a Sunday above 60 degrees. Such is middle age. If this is how it is, I don’t mind it a bit.
But. I find myself yearning for more. And less. Not necessarily the way it was for us a decade ago, when we had an 11 year-old and a 5 year-old and we were still living at 1005 and my main (and formidable) task was guiding their education – and, as it happened, my own. I’m talking about more (and less) within the framework we have now. Work (ours) and school (hers) plus soccer (theirs) and outside activities (ours) means, lately, coming home each night to a house that looks like a cat fur bomb has gone off, non-existent dinner plans for hungry people, and a garden full of plants I don’t want (AKA “weeds”). While soccer is mostly over and school is nearly out, a summer including family travel, at least one wedding to attend, team tryouts, driver’s ed, and a list of home projects as long as my arm is a bit intimidating. The house stuff really needs to happen, as we’ve lived here at 909 for nearly 10 years and a few things are finally starting to show their age. I’ve gotten right with one thing: The things keeping us occupied are things we love, so we just have to make room in all the budgets to make life work. I’ll confess: While there’s a part of me that relishes the challenge, there’s also a part of me that just wants to sleep. I need to know, guys. How do people far busier than us keep up?
Coming soon to screens and airwaves: Tim, the other half of the BYI enterprise, is finally back from a work trip to SF and we’re about to start intensive video editing work on two video episodes. Upcoming radio episodes will include musings on co-existing with urban wildlife (I’m headed out today with this guy), making food with edible flowers, and what local food means in a country-to-be-named-later. It’s the time of year I dreamed about during the polar vortices. It’s a time of… more. And for that? I’m grateful.