Tuesday, February 08, 2011
Don DeLillo, A-frames, and gentrifying Miffland
"They heard the voices more clearly now, ripping from stereo speakers set in the windows of A-frames along Mifflin Street." -- Don DeLillo, Underworld, 1997, p. 597
I usually have a hard time sticking with really long books, but for some reason I couldn't put down Don DeLillo's 827-page epic novel about Cold War America, which I read not long after it came out in 1997. I was still reading on my return to Madison from a business trip as we came in for the landing. My tray table and seat were locked in their upright position, and so I was holding up the bulky volume awkwardly in front of me in the crowded seat. Oddly enough, I had just gotten to the part that was set in Madison three decades before. And as the passengers braced themselves for landing, I got to the sentence about the A-frames and burst out laughing loudly in the suddenly silent plane just before it touched down. It must have sounded like some strange, nervous laughter. The reason I laughed was I had a sudden, absurd vision of Miffland transformed into one big neighborhood of Door County A-frame vacation homes.
This was at the beginning of DeLillo's fictional mashup of late sixties rioting in Madison, in which DeLillo conflates the 1967 Dow Chemical protest and the events following the police-student confrontation at the first Mifflin Street Block Party in 1969 (very different events) with his own ideas about media amplifying civil unrest. The A-frame reference was so spectacularly goofy that I had a hard time taking any of the passage seriously after that, even in a literary sense -- but then, that usually happens when you read a fictional account of events you have experienced first-hand. I did wonder whether DeLillo was writing about a neighborhood he had never even seen, even in pictures. But later I decided that, because DeLillo had so many references to frame houses, probably a careless copy editor had simply changed one of them for variety's sake, to what the editor thought was a synonym.
I was reminded of the DeLillo book because Miffland -- the historic student neighborhood near the University of Wisconsin-Madison -- is on my mind these days, partly because gentrification is once again threatening the continued existence of Miffland as a low-rent student neighborhood. And also because aspects of the pro-democracy demonstrations in Egypt are so reminiscent of the idealism of the early antiwar movement in the U.S. before everything turned dark and Nixonian.
I didn't shoot a lot of color in those days, but one of my photos of the Miffland window (taken in 1969) seems to capture some of the spirit of the time, with the psychedlic broken glass and the sign offering legal help. The photo at the right was taken in 1975 and shows one of the earlier murals on the wall of the Mifflin Street Coop. I've always liked those words of Black Elk, which never go out of date -- "It is in the darkness of their eyes that men get lost."
So much has changed in the years since then. The country is different, Madison is different, and so is the University of Wisconsin. The draft is long gone. The Mifflin Street Coop is gone. And students today are preoccupied most of all by their mounting student loan burden and the difficulty of finding a job after they graduate into our rotten economy. Still, Miffland retains a low-rent bohemian identity of its own. The Mifflin Street Block Party continues to be a popular event that draws a large crowd in late spring.
It would be a shame if the neighborhood became too gentrified. If there's anything more absurd in Miffland than an A-frame, it's a condo. The two- and three-story wooden frame houses are a link to an older Madison. Let's not replace them all with bland concrete and masonry boxes.