Oh, hey, Mark Lakeman is running for City Council.
Boy, I’ve been paying attention to local politics.
This is another Anodyne article. The footer at the bottom of the clipping I’ve got says April 1997, which means the damn thing was written seven years ago. It’s a piece I’m more happy with than not from back in that particular day, even if me-then glares at how me-now wants to smooth out the more embarrassing hyperbole. It’s about Mark Lakeman and the T-Horse and the Moonday T-Hows and Intersection Repair and City Repair and it’s about why I’m going to vote for Mark Lakeman, though it might not be why you’d vote for him. Or against him. And I guess beyond noting that while Hands Around Portland didn’t quite work (for at least the idea of completing an actual circle, much like Hands Across America failed to make it actually across), Dignity Village is working (for at least the idea of doing something concrete to help the homeless), and that’s the more important of the two, you ask me, well, beyond noting that, I’ll just get out of the way. —Oh, yeah: Juliana Tobón took some photos, which I’d show you if I could, but hey, you know: seven years.
Whether you blame it on disrespect for family values or rampant corporate greed, all of us here in fin de siècle America agree on one thing: life sucks. Our problems are legion and getting worse, and any conceivable solution seems hopelessly out of reach. It would have to do so much, speak to so many people, regardless of age or race or class or sexual preference or crackpot creed. It’s all too big, too abstract, too much—how can we find a solution when we can’t even agree on the problems?
Mark Lakeman believes he has a solution—and a lot of people are starting to agree with him.
The first part of the solution looks pretty damn ungainly as it negotiates the narrow paths of Couch Park at night. It’s a blue Toyota pickup truck, well-used, with a camper over the bed and an immense heap of sticks and plastic sheeting rolled up on top. It settles in the darkest corner of the park, as far as possible from the poisonous pink sodium-vapor lights. People gather round. Some of them start unloading the truck, breaking that pile of plastic and sticks into separate bundles; some of them are bringing food, trays of desserts, pots of chai and tea; some of them are standing around scratching their heads.
Those bundles, once unrolled and hefted up, attached with ties and braced with struts, become high, wide awnings, one each for the front, back, both sides. The plastic sheeting, unfurled, catches the light, looking like the paper wings of a Leonardo da Vinci glider.
“It’s a butterfly,” says one of the head-scratchers suddenly. He grins.
Rugs are spread beneath the wings, and pillows, an assortment of thrift-store styles and colors. Candles are lit and hung from the struts. Two people climb in the back of the truck and busy themselves with cups and plates. “The T-Horse is open!” they call, and desserts and cups of tea start issuing forth, all for free. People flop on the pillows, chatty, friendly, smiling. Kids and dogs play on the fringes. Someone starts to play a drum or two.
“What is this?” more than one person is asking, unsatisfied with the poetry of the butterfly answer. Well—it’s a mobile café, a free space for the people of the neighborhood to gather, a place for them to meet and hang out for the night; putting it simply, it’s a T-Horse.
It’s also a seed, an activator, a catalyst; a means to an end. It’s the fourth T-Hows.
Mark Lakeman doesn’t want to be called an architect, though it runs in his veins. His father is Richard Lakeman, the first head of Portland’s Planning Bureau, who fought for Waterfront Park and Pioneer Square; his mother is Sandra Davis Lakeman, a design instructor and architectural historian whose specialty is light and its interplay with public space. Lakeman himself trained as a corporate architect, though he never got his license. “I left in protest,” he says. “I didn’t want to get my license. I don’t want the sanction of an organization that puts technology over history and culture.”
He was utterly disheartened by a sordid little incident involving a local construction firm, a major building, the EPA, and hidden barrels of sludge (the sort of thing that’s far more common than we want to admit). He knocked about for a time, traveling to Europe to help his mother with a study of the piazzas of Italian hill towns, seeing ancient architecture, buildings that were works of art, that expressed something.
Returning to the States, he took a long hard look at the immense sculptural things he’d been trained to build. He didn’t like what he saw.
“Look at this,” he says, pointing to a picture of a skyscraper. “This is trying to say aspire, be all you can be—but at the top of every skyscraper is nothing but a mechanical system. What is that saying? The only thing being expressed here is ‘growth’.”
Something fundamental has gone wrong in how we build for ourselves, and Lakeman set out to look for answers. His search eventually took him all the way back to the beginnings of building, and of human community—the Hach Wynik, quite possibly the last unassimilated indigenous people left in North America.
In 1994, Lakeman spent two and a half months living in a village of approximately 120 Hach Wynik deep in what little remains of the Lacandon rain forest, on the border between Mexico and Guatemala. He ostensibly went in to conduct an anthropological study through painting; he never painted a stroke. Instead he spent all his time learning, or rather unlearning—everything about what makes family, community, human interaction, about what is and isn’t possible. He describes the process as “unmaking,” and still finds the whole experience somewhat distant, jumbled, hard to lay out—but it all crystallized around an otherwise ordinary conversation one day in the forest when his companion reached out, casually, and with one hand performed a neat and intricate little dance with a butterfly, then, just as casually, let it go.
Something had happened which isn’t supposed to happen, call it magic or luck or delusion or what you will—but the effects were very real. “I felt a profound physiological crisis, like hitting a computer with a virus. Seeing something so beautiful, and so profound… I’d have given everything I knew to have that rapport with nature.”
Coming out of the forest, he spent some time trying to reconcile what he’d learned with what he thought he knew, what he calls “two different ways of seeing.” He spent some time on a porch in San Pedro, a town on the shores of Lake Atitlan, in Guatemala, and, trying to recapture some of the community he’d felt in the forest, he began to leave his cookstove going 24 hours a day, offering up food and drink and space to whomever was passing by.
The first T-Hows was born.
“That was the remaking process,” says Lakeman. “I discovered I enjoyed facilitating gathering. And I began to see food and drink as a means of pulling people together.”
He brought this principle with him when he returned to Portland, setting up in a tent in a friend’s backyard in Northeast Portland. This second T-Hows served about 25 people a night and ran through August and September of 1995—but there was something more to be done, something bigger, something better, something to reach out to more people.
The Moonday T-Hows (to give it its full name) is slowly but surely entering the mythic landscape of Portland. Built during the winter of 1995 out of recycled doors and windows, plastic sheeting, and stormfall, it sounded for all the world like a post-apocalyptic shack. It was, instead, a lovingly crafted tea house, built around and through the trees on a yard at the corner of SE 9th and Sherrett. Divided inside into ten different spaces, decorated by ten different artists around themes like the Heart, the Soul, the Best Friend’s Stage, and Grandmother’s Porch, the third T-Hows opened on March 21, 1996, and every Monday thereafter served up a potluck. Though designed to hold 80 people, it drew at first only curious neighbors—but word of mouth began to spread. By the middle of the summer, when the band Gypsy Caravan put on an impromptu concert, two or three hundred people spilled onto the streets, dancing. Over five hundred people came to its last night, August 19, when it was dismantled.
Contrary to previous reports, no small-minded city bureaucrat reluctantly or otherwise ordered the T-Hows destroyed. There were some concerns over lack of insurance, and over the use of recycled materials in its construction (a strict regulatory no-no, by the way), but the city was supportive from the start, and issued a 6-month temporary permit, though a full year could have been theirs for the asking. It wasn’t necessary. The original idea had always been to last only from March 21 to September 21, from equinox to equinox, and when the T-Hows came down on August 19, it was, quite simply, because its time had come, a little earlier than foreseen. “It had matured,” in Lakeman’s words. It, too, was a seed, a catalyst, a means to an end.
Towards what end, though? What are these seeds trying to grow?
For a glimpse, head back to SE 9th and Sherrett.
Near the end of last summer, as the T-Hows was drawing to a close, Lakeman attached a simple string compass to the manhole in the center of the intersection and drew a big circle cutting across all four corners. He then asked the property owners if he could plant flowers in the grass berms along that circle, and three of the four agreed. Lakeman built a small tea station on one corner, to keep the spirit of the T-Hows alive, and supplied it with cups, bags, and thermoses of hot water kept filled at all hours of the day and night. A produce stand, for surplus vegetables from neighborhood gardens, and a chalk station soon followed, all built with the help of neighborhood kids, all with the blessing of the corner property owners. (The fourth eventually came around, once he saw what was happening.)
He began doing these things out of an inchoate desire to mark the neighborhood in some fashion—“I really don’t understand how it started,” he says—but Lakeman soon realized what he was trying to do was fashion a piazza from a common residential intersection.
He called it a piazza, but he could have called it a square, a commons, a green, a forum, a plaza. Throughout the world, wherever people build neighborhoods for themselves, where two paths meet, something happens. A place where people meet, converse, sit and enjoy the light, maybe shop for a trifle or two; a public space, a special place.
Except here. What do you see on a typical American residential intersection? Houses, and more houses. Houses as far as the eye can see. When space does open up, it’s never space for people to meet, but space for cars to meet: commercial strips, highways, parking lots, minimalls. The crucial difference is that we didn’t design our neighborhoods; developers did, people who weren’t concerned with livability but with the bottom line. Public spaces use up valuable lots which could be sold as houses. Why bother? The reason we no longer know our neighbors is because we no longer have a place to meet them. The reason our communities are falling apart is because we’ve left them no place to be.
When Lakeman realized what he was trying to do, he drafted a manifesto and sent it out to his neighbors—Intersection Repair, he called it. He pointed out what he saw as missing, and what he hoped to do: repair the intersection, and transform it into what it should have been all along, the crossroads for their community. Already enchanted by the T-Hows, his neighbors responded enthusiastically; meetings were held, the manifesto hammered into shape, and a block party planned to celebrate. And on September 8, they all went out and marked their otherwise anonymous intersection, serving notice to the world at large that they were claiming it as public space.
They painted the street.
Giant concentric circles, which tied into the circles of sunflowers Lakeman had already planted. Lines radiating off these circles down each of the four streets: red, white, yellow, and black.
The Bureau of Transportation responded almost at once. You can’t paint the street, they said. It’s against the rules. It’s already done, said the neighbors. We all like it. Can’t you grant some sort of exemption?
Hell no, said the Bureau. Strip it up yourselves, or be prepared to pay a $1000 fine. And you’ll be liable for any accidents caused by your illegal markings.
The neighborhood prepared to do just that, while they worked every possible angle to keep their space. In November, just before the Bureau’s deadline, Lakeman made a presentation to a couple of aides from the offices of City Councilors Charlie Hales and Gretchen Kafoury. He told them about his experiences in the rain forest, and about what he’d learned; he showed them the T-Hows, and what it had done; he told them about piazzas, and how he hoped to grow one in Sellwood. He never finished his proposal. The aides began talking animatedly about the possibilities of this Intersection Repair project. The Bureau was told to grant an exception while the merits of this interesting proposal were studied.
Everybody’s happy, right?
“It looks,” said Janet Conklin, “like the slum areas outside of Bombay. It is garish, it is unsightly, it is an eyesore.”
The City Council held a hearing March 19 to determine the final outcome of the Intersection Repair project. Conklin was the lone voice of dissent; twelve people, from within the neighborhood and without, spoke in favor.
Conklin lives nearby, and owns a condominium at SE 9th and Weber; she has had to drive through the intersection several times a month. She wants the City Council to reject the permit. According to her testimony, Conklin isn’t against the community-building aspects of the project. The potlucks are fine, the block parties, the ubiquitous tea. But it’s a question of “fundamental æsthetics,” affecting a neighborhood “on the brink of renovation.” She suggests a community garden as an alternative to painting the street.
I haven’t personally seen a Bombay slum, so I can’t speak to that comparison, but I didn’t find the intersection to be unsightly, or an eyesore. But I’m not a property owner, with visions of renovation dancing in my head. I do note that there is no space anywhere available for a community garden.
The tea station, gazebo, benches, historical marker, all have a certain rough-hewn quality, but that’s of necessity. This is an “emergency piazza,” as the proposal puts it. The street is painted and these installations built out of found materials because there’s no other place to put it, no money set aside for it, no other way to do it—and yet this is something so vital, something so amazing to the neighborhood, that they went ahead and seized this intersection despite the rules and laws against it. Call it eminent domain by guerilla tactics.
Petitions were circulated in the immediate neighborhood, garnering 88 signatures in favor. Surveys were taken: 87% thought the neighborhood was safer now; 87% thought that communication between neighbors had improved; 81% thought traffic was safer and 90% thought it had slowed—traffic calming without speed bumps; 81% thought the neighborhood had become more livable.
The City Council voted unanimously to allow the project.
Portlanders are constantly told how lucky we are, what forward-thinking urban planners we have, what a progressive City Council, what a livable city. Here at least is an example of that: some hooligans deface public property, the Bureau of Transportation objects, a property owner frets about property values, the City Council grants the hooligans a permit.
But it’s easy to lose sight of our good fortune. Look at the damned US Bancorp Tower, or the sprawl along 82nd, or Burnside, or Sandy, or the horror stories about the Portland Building, or those horrible condominiums that just went up by the Lloyd Center, or the Lloyd Center itself. We just opened up the Urban Growth Boundary to more development of the soulless big box mini-mall suburban hell variety—and every month sees a new parking garage. It’s discouraging to realize that Portland is considered so livable merely because everywhere else is worse; it’s hard to know what to do when all the relevant decisions are made by groups so distant from our everyday lives.
Which brings us back to where we started, with the T-Horse.
When the Moonday T-Hows was dismantled, its ten rooms where dispersed throughout the city, to start ten new T-Howses. The Kitchen ended up in the back of a well-used blue Toyota pickup truck.
The T-Horse made its first appearance, sans wings, on Friday, December 13, 1996, in Pioneer Square, dispensing as always free tea and desserts to whomever stopped by. Ever since January 6 it has been working its way widdershins about the city, traveling from park to park, a new one every Monday night. It had grown wings, a heart-shaped canopy, and rugs and pillows and candles, and crowds—as many as a hundred a night as it neared the top of its Northeast arc. This is in the rain and chill of January, February, and March; imagine what it will look like in April, May, June.
The idea is to make at least two circles of the city, the second a little wider and more dispersed than the first, between January 6 and June 21, the summer solstice—and with the solstice comes City Repair.
City Repair is going to be a giant human circle which will link hands at high noon on June 21, along the route the T-Horse followed through the city. It’s also going to be a massive tea party and potluck to be held that evening, when the circle collapses and converges on Pioneer Square.
This is your chance to participate. The T-Horse is drawing people in, spreading the word, letting us all know something is happening. Like the initial outlaw street painting at 9th and Sherrett, City Repair will serve notice: we are seizing this space as ours. What happens next is up to us.
“Some bureaucrats are nervous,” says Lakeman, “concerned about the precedent being set.” No wonder. Lakeman would like to see no less than a city full of repaired intersections, residential neighborhoods clustered about their emergency piazzas, herds of T-Horses roaming the city—public spaces created by any means necessary. He’s seen how simple it is to start community, where before there was none: all it needs is a little food, some drink, a space, and the people will come. He’s seen the profound effect it’s had on his neighborhood. He wants the whole city to feel it.
“It’s funny,” he says. “People talk all the time about saving the rainforest, but this—this is coming out of the rainforest, to save us.”