Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Way We Live Now

I have attended two conferences in recent weeks--one in Frisco, Texas and the other in Chicago. The first was the annual state convention of my profession. As I teach a couple of required courses in our local university, my presence was expected. (And the fact that my two nights at the Embassy Suites would be covered tended to sweeten the deal.) The second conference was the annual gathering of the Byzantine Studies Association of North America. The use of frequent flyer miles brought this meeting within the arc of affordability. Two more disparate gatherings could not be imagined.

Frisco lies at the far north edge of a conglomeration of burgeoning suburban cities we used to simply refer to as North Dallas. When it comes to runaway growth, Frisco is in a class by itself. In 1990, the town boasted 6,000 residents. Today, the population has surpassed 120,000.

Though I have lived my entire life in rural, semi-rural and small-town settings, I tend to enjoy urban areas. Dallas and environs, however, is not a favorite. I appreciate those cities with lively downtowns and that promote and protect distinctive neighborhoods. Dallas suffers on both counts. The city has few real neighborhoods for its size, with the truly interesting ones hidden away in the struggling southern and eastern sectors--not in the north where all the growth is heading. Dallas is making strides in downtown revitalization, though here again, there is an artificiality to it all, as opposed to their neighbor to the west, Fort Worth.

Frisco seems to suffer from over planning. The area around the convention center/hotel was pastureland ten years previously. Now, freeways and wide, divided esplanades splice through the black land, blocking off the shopping centers, malls, office parks, restaurants, and entertainment venues of various sorts--all set far back with acres of parking in front. Everything is carefully landscaped, to be sure.

Outside of the old town core, Frisco tends towards walled enclaves of ugly, two-story, cheaply-constructed-to-the-naked-eye brick veneer jobs jammed up alongside each other on tiny lots, or walled enclaves of back-to-back McMansionas Texiana. One area gated development opted for a different, though unintentionally hilarious look, dubbing itself "Savannah," complete with Lowland architecture and imported palms. All this on the tree-less black lands of North Texas, a stone's throw from the Red River. Frisco is an almost totally planned city and has won numerous awards and all, but I couldn't help thinking to myself--they did this on purpose? The city is absolutely incomprehensible without use of the automobile. People jog, but they don't walk. There is no where to walk to. My last night there, somewhat in protest, I left my truck in the parking garage and walked a half-mile down the street to an El Salvadoran restaurant.

There will eventually be a limit to this growth. According to those who study these things, the city of Frisco will have a population of 280,000 when it is "built out." To the north, the small community of Prosper is all set to be the "next Frisco." Beyond that, there is the Red River and Oklahoma, where all things Texan come to a screeching stop.

Other than changing planes at O'Hare, I had not been to Chicago since 1987. The conference venue was DePaul University in the Lincoln Park neighborhood. The hotel for the conference was 10 blocks east, on the West edge of the park. I was in for a pleasant surprise in my accommodations. The Belden-Stratford is a 14-story 1922 hotel, complete with grand lobby. 80% of the building is given over to apartments, while the remaining 20% are offered as hotel rooms. A mistake was made in my reservations, so they had to put me in one of the vacant apartments. So, instead of a single hotel room, I ended up in a 1200 square foot two bedroom, two and a half bath, living room, dining room, full kitchen corner suite, with East views overlooking Lincoln Park and Lake Michigan, and South views overlooking the Chicago skyline. I almost hated to leave the room.

The weather was perfect, crisp temperatures and without a cloud in the sky. The walk to and from the conference each day gave me opportunity to check out the neighborhood. Lincoln Park is one of those districts that has been pretty thoroughly gentrified. Being so close to downtown, it is a desirable locale, and property values reflect that. I am quite sure I could not afford to live here. The homes and apartments differed enough from one another to keep the walk interesting. I noticed that many of the residences boasted large picture windows, and most had their shades open where one could see the artwork and/or decorative items they were sharing with those on the sidewalk. While I liked this, I found it different from most streetscapes, where the blinds are kept closed.

DePaul is a Catholic university where the student body appeared earnest and well-scrubbed. I thoroughly enjoyed the conference, met an old acquaintance or two, and even made a few new friends among the academe. The field of Byzantine studies is a rarefied little world if there ever was one. But what a fascinating world it is! Many of the papers were read by graduate students. I wish them all well, though I wonder where they think the jobs will be.

One night, we were all bussed out to the University of Chicago for a lecture. The drive out there, south along Lakeshore Drive as it wrapped around downtown Chicago, was worth the trip. The campus was something to see, as well. The venue that night was the Oriental Institute, where we listened to a talk delivered in an old wood-paneled lecture hall, complete with red leather theatre seats. Afterwards, they treated us with a reception in the exhibit hall, replete with Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian displays. The lamassu there, from the palace of Sargon II, was even more impressive than the one in the Louve. (I'm being a little pretentious here. A lamassu is one of those Assyrian winged horses with a human head. And no, I did not know what the word meant either until I read the sign next to the display.)

We enjoyed a reception at Cortelyou Commons the last night of the conference, where two association officers re-enacted a scene from the play, Theodora. There, I had occasion to speak briefly with Daniel Larison, whose writings I seem to constantly extol on these pages.

Somewhere along the way, I managed to squeeze in a visit to a local Irish pub (Kelley's, established 1933.) Meeting two fellow Orthodox bloggers while in Chicago was an especial treat--as was my visit to Christ the Savior Orthodox Church (OCA.) The temple was located 1.7 miles south of my hotel, and this made a nice Sunday morning walk. The church is in what was once a turn-of-the century Presbyterian church that eventually disbanded. Our Savior's got an incredible deal on the building, as well as the mansion house next door, which serves as their hall. The iconography in the church is almost finished and is beautifully done. I estimated 85-100 at Divine Liturgy, heavily represented by younger families with children. That is usually a good sign, I think.

The Rich Man and Lazarus was the subject of the homily for that particular Sunday. I remember that the priest brought out the fact that the Rich Man (whose name we do not even know) failed to see Lazarus (whose name is preserved for eternity) as a brother. The sermon hit home with me because of an incident that had happened only the day before. I was walking west on Belden, approaching the commercial area at the Clark Street intersection. A disheveled-looking man was standing on the sidewalk ahead, just outside the 7-Eleven. I could tell that he was what we call a "street person." He had a few bags on the ground and his old coat was pulled up over his head. As I approached, I was going over in my mind what I would do if he asked for money. Of course I would give him some, if asked, but then I was wondering if I had any small bills on me and that sort of thing. When I drew even with him, I tried to avoid eye contact and he did not say anything. Phew, I thought, problem solved. A block further on, I saw a man walking his two pugs. I am a pug person, and so I smiled broadly and stopped to admire the two dogs. As I walked on, the enormity of what I had just done hit me squarely in the face. I had shown great affection towards these two pampered pets. And yet, I had failed to recognize Christ in the face of my poor brother on the street corner. I had missed my chance. There was nothing to do now but to repent and try to do better next time. The following morning, before striking off to church, I made sure I had some money in my right pants pocket, just in case. A few blocks before I reached the church, a woman stopped me and asked if I could help her with bus fare. This time I was ready. My gracious Lord had given me a second chance.

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