Friday, August 24, 2007

Trying to hold on, coping with those August floods

Holding On For Dear Life
That was then. This is now -- August, 2007, and even the wooly bear caterpillars are having to scramble to find shelter from the rising flood waters. Photo taken along County Hwy B, just outside Cambridge, this morning. At the office I heard that Cambridge, just a few miles east of Madison, had 4.5 inches of rain last night (while Madison escaped most of it -- these storms have tended to be highly localized).

This is what August is supposed to look like

The Way August Used to Look
This photo, taken at the end of July, shows what used to happen to the landscape around here in August: Normally it's a dry month in the upper Midwest, things start to dry out, and the landscape turns brown and gold in anticipation of fall. Not this year. It looks like spring out there. Normally we get 3 inches of rain in August. This year we have had 15 inches, an all-time record for any month, with more to come -- although we're supposed to catch a break this weekend. The storms race through from the Southwest like express trains, and on the Doppler radar you can watch the concentrations of heavy rain move across the landscape like bright red and orange freight cars.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

One of the best times to view the Goodman Pool's "Ripple Effect" gate is in the rain

A Great Redundancy of Water, and Then Some
Our endless rains have provided perfect conditions for me to stop on my way home at the Goodman Pool to catch up with one of my favorite works of public art -- "The Ripple Effect," by San Francisco artist Eric Powell. It's a wonderful work in any weather, but it really comes into its own in a downpour, blending seamlessly with the pouring rain. Here's how Kevin Lynch of the Capital Times described it when the commission was announced.
Madison's long-awaited first public swimming pool will have a splashy entryway designed by artist Eric Powell from San Francisco. Rather than merely entering a door or gateway, visitors will get a visual douse of water in the form of Powell's "Ripple Effect."

In the artist's rendering of the design, the sculpture serves as the central wall between two entrances, with a shape that billows outward as a circular ripple wave. At the top of the wall - in the center of the metallic wave - a large drop of water splashes into the main circular form.

"The entire gateway is in the form of a water splash and subsequent ripple effect," Powell says. "The gateway is an easily recognizable greeting and exit point to the pool complex. My intention is to appeal to children and adults and create a work that stands the test of time, aesthetically and materially."
Unfortunately, things didn't turn out as well across town at Camp Randall.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

What Black Hawk said long ago: "I loved my towns, my cornfields, and the home of my people"

"I Loved My Towns, My Cornfields, and the Home of My People"
Drive north of Prairie du Chien along the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi and you'll come across this reminder of a great tragedy, commemorated by two markers, one from the thirties, one from the fifties. The Bad Axe River runs into the Mississippi not far from this spot on Hwy 35, north of Prairie du Chien. This is the place where 175 years ago, the cruelly misnamed Battle of the Bad Axe took place -- not a battle, but a massacre, the slaughter of most of Black Hawk's band of Sauks -- not just warriors, but women and children -- after they had tried to surrender. It happened after months of pursuit, which started in Illinois and at one point led through the isthmus of what later became Madison, some 150 miles southeast of here. Black Hawk's words on the marker are a poignant reminder of the underlying issue in the Black Hawk War, a tragic conflict that arose from a combination of bungling, brutality, fear and misunderstanding on both sides as a tidal wave of white settlement spread west.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

In Bush World, when you lose your house to foreclosure, your world of pain has just started.

You'd think the I.R.S. would have better things to do than torture people who have already lost everything, but you'd be wrong -- or living in some world other than Bush World. Say you've been unable to keep up with your house payments because you lost your job, had a major illness, or just watched helplessly as your adjustable rate mortgage payments soared through the roof. You lose your house to foreclosure. The bank takes the house, gives you a dollar to clear the title, and forgives the balance of the loan. The bank then sells the house at auction and recoups as much of their collateral as they can. You get on with your life, or so you think. According to the New York Times, it's not that simple.
Two years ago, William Stout lost his home in Allentown, Pa., to foreclosure when he could no longer make the payments on his $106,000 mortgage. Wells Fargo offered the two-bedroom house for sale on the courthouse steps. No bidders came forward. So Wells Fargo bought it for $1, county records show.

Despite the setback, Mr. Stout was relieved that his debt was wiped clean and he could make a new start. He married and moved in with his wife, Denise.

But on July 9, they received a bill from the Internal Revenue Service for $34,603 in back taxes. The letter explained that the debt canceled by Wells Fargo upon foreclosure was subject to income taxes, as well as penalties and late fees. The couple had a month to challenge the charges.
It's a perfect Catch-22: You lose everything, but at least your debt is forgiven, but because the debt is forgiven, it's income, and now you have a new debt to Uncle Sam, one with penalties and interest added, because of the time that elapsed since you "earned" that income. And then you have just a month to appeal, or you lose your rights to question the decision. That 1-month appeal period is the icing on the cake. Most low income people don't have attorneys waiting in the wings to give them good advice in a case like this, which can often be won on appeal (after spending a lot on legal bills, of course). Many just go into panic mode and freeze instead, doing nothing until it's too late.

It all makes perfect sense in Bush World, though. What else is the I.R.S. to do? The rich are off limits. Middle class people fight back. So why not go after the poor and disadvantaged? I.R.S has to collect taxes somewhere.

Monday, August 20, 2007

It's not by Frank Lloyd Wright, but it does show intriguing signs of Prairie Style influence

East Washington Avenue Bridge 3
Having been so dismissive of the design of the Spooner Street Bridge over the Southwest Bike Path, I really want to give credit where credit is due -- for the new bridge on East Washington Avenue, which I photographed recently.

It's truly spectacular. The East Washington Avenue Bridge, designed by Milwaukee's HNTB Corp., is not only about getting from one place to another, but is also a work of architecture that is rapidly becoming a destination itself (especially for photographers). If you want to really see it and feel it, take a moment to get out of the car and walk around its spaces, including the bike and pedestrian paths on both sides of the river, bridged by these vaulting, graceful spans. In the flickering light of the reflected ripples in the water, it's like an aquatic cathedral down there.

You may end up finding more than a passing resemblance to elements of Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie Style. You and me and "Kent Williams.
I'm standing on the pedestrian/bike path just below the brand-new Prairie Style bridge on East Washington Avenue. The Yahara River flows gently by, the occasional motorboat rustling the placid water. And the underside of the bridge, with its series of low-lying arches, creates the effect of an indoor swimming pool, a natatorium.


And the bridge over the Yahara, once an afterthought, a slight rise in the road on your way into town, now feels like a true gateway to the city, framing the state Capitol off in the distance and bringing an element of dignity to the proceedings. Driving by in a car, what you notice are the lantern-topped columns, that and the large planters that seem to have been brought over from Monona Terrace. On foot, you can walk over to one of the four corner lookouts and watch the river traffic — boats, bikes and bipeds — pass by. But the best place from which to view the bridge itself is from down here, where the vertical columns and the horizontal span resolve themselves into a pleasing composition, and where the various elements can be seen to engage in a little spatial play, the corner lookouts sheltering the paths below, the columns forming various sets of two and four, depending on where you're standing.

Allusions to Wright's work abound. The lantern-topped columns, with their incised ornament, evoke — to me, anyway — the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, Japan, which famously survived the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, then was demolished in 1968. The ornamental motif itself, an abstraction of a sumac plant, was perhaps borrowed from the Dana House in Springfield, Ill., where it appears in a profusion of T-square variations. And all that creamy beige (the bridge itself) and rec-area green (the railings) are offset by discreet touches of Wright's trademark Cherokee red. Surely that alone would have inclined him to accept this belated apology from a town that didn't always know what to make of the genius in its midst. That he was a great architect was undeniable. Just ask him. Or just look at his buildings. But it must have been one of the great disappointments of Wright's life that so few of those buildings are in Madison.
Williams, the film critic for Madison's alternative weekly, Isthmus, has been carving out an alternate (and award-winning) identity as a thoughtful, insightful writer on architecture. Be sure to read his entire essay, "He's back: Madison finally embraces Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie Style architecture." Not only is there more about Wright and the bridge, but Williams examines a number of new projects and the degree to which they may have been influenced by the Prairie Style, including the renovation of the Dane County Regional Airport terminal -- "less Prairie Style than Prairie Styling." Also, don't miss his conclusion about the "Frank Lloyd Wright house" he grew up in and what it says about Wright's lasting influence on the way Americans live. It's a beautifully written passage and a graceful tribute.