Monday, November 05, 2007

Arcosanti One Year Later

[Debbie told me I needed to look at this post because there were words missing or something. So I made another pass through making corrections and clarifications. I missed more than a few words; whole paragraphs were missing. I hope this makes more sense. Never blog when you are too tired to keep your eyes open.]

Well, it's amazing how fast a year can go by. One year ago today, Debbie and I began our five-week workshop here at Arcosanti. It has been mostly a positive experience until the last few days. More on that in a moment, but the short version is that there won't be a two-year anniversary. There may not be a 13-month anniversary.

In any case, here is the deal with this place. (This is going to be very long, so you may want to pee first. Go ahead, I'll wait. Ready? OK, here we go.)

The Area:

We are in central Arizona. Almost dead center, in fact. We are at about 3,600 feet in elevation, which means the weather is almost perfect. There are four distinct seasons, but we don't get the oven-like temperatures that Phoenix does, nor do we get snow like the higher elevations (6,000 feet seems to be the magic number at this latitude). Well, we get something they call snow here, but in Michigan it would barely qualify as a heavy frost; it is melted and gone an hour after sunrise. So for the first time in my life, I don't have to start every day between Thanksgiving and tax day fighting with snow. There may come a point where I miss it, but I doubt that it will be this winter. Or the next. Or the twenty after that.

The scenery is simply awesome with a mix of mountains and basalt mesas. There isn't much in the way of real trees at the elevation we are at, but they are plentiful just a couple thousand feet higher (about an hour drive). We are an easy day trip from dozens of national parks that feature every type of geography/geology imaginable (and several that are unimaginable). Yesterday, for example, we spent the day running all over the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert. It is incredible. We could do trips like that every weekend for most of our second year in Arizona without running out of places to see.

The Culture:

Culturally, this area is basically Mancelona, Michigan complete with the trailer trash, the drugs, the liquor store every ten feet (but the closest grocery store is a 70-mile round trip), the lack of a work ethic, the lack of anything resembling Western morals, etc. But the one feature than will make any Mancetukian right at home is the junk. But central Arizona does it even better. These guys don't just toss junk cars, refrigerators, quads and other small debris. The landscape everywhere you look is littered with abandoned buildings, mines (which claim several lives a year; the latest was an eight-year-old girl), even entire towns. Nothing is ever repaired or reused; just build it, use it until it breaks or you no longer need it, then walk away. And the best part is that, in the desert climate, junk never rots away, and the vegetation is too sparse to hide a significant part of it. So it just sits there, until the end of time, as a testament to human wastefulness and stupidity.

Arcosanti makes this big show of being somehow different, yet everywhere you look you see junk, abandoned construction equipment, and junk cars, many of which belong to people who no longer live at Arcosanti. I wouldn't be surprised if the non-functioning cars here outnumber those still capable of turning their wheels. And that isn't even considering the 100+ cars that caught on fire at a concert here back in 1978. Those were crushed then buried behind the buildings where they remain to this day. God only knows what has has leaked/is leaking into the soil and water. So much for "respecting the environment."

And speaking of leaks, many of the original structures leak when it rains because nothing here is maintained. Debbie and I are pretty lucky in that we are in the newest building on the site, and the roof is still holding. But the first thing visitors to the site see is our "gallery," located in one of the older buildings, which leaks in a dozen places; meaning that the concrete walls have water stains from ceiling to floor (they could be easily cleaned off, but why bother when it's just going to rain again next year...), and the carpet looks and smells like Arcosanti bought it used from a dog kennel. Many of the older resident spaces are even worse, with water pour down to walls when it rains. Welcome to the City of the Future!

Of course, the problems go much further than just leaks. The whole site looks and feels tired. Faded paint, overgrown vegetation, drains that don't, sagging doors, just plain dirt, all of this and more just makes the place feel like one of the those old, roadside motels (that don't exit anymore because the chains ran them out of business) where everything that hasn't stopped working seems on the verge of failure. No one thing is a big deal, but the cumulative effect gives the impression of a site that no one cares about.

The Community:

The short answer is that there isn't one. There is a small group that always seems to be trying, but the majority of the population is too transient for it to ever take hold, and the long-term residents are never seen outside of work hours. Most never attend any of the major events we host, never attend any site parties, never attend the special party thrown to welcome each new workshop. So as long as your idea of community is the 20-somethings getting high and/or drunk several times a week while everyone else hides in their rooms, then I guess there is a community here.

The site is governed on a fascist model, with everything owned by the foundation, and the control of everything, from housing to employment to how many times a week the cafe is allowed to serve meat, residing in a single individual. There is a community council elected at large from the residents, but they are Masters of Trivia, such as organizing highway cleanups and granting noise extensions to residents that wish to have parties that extend past the site-wide quiet time (yes, you read that right). Any attempts to make substantive changes are immediately over-ruled by the Site Nazi. Each new council learns quickly that the best policy is to do nothing.


I didn't expect much coming in largely because any organization with as low a pay scale as this place just isn't going to attract top-notch talent. I mean, I work here after all. But I guess I didn't set the bar low enough because I was still floored by how bad everyone in charge is at their job. But until three days ago, I was operating under Napoleon's maxim: never ascribe to malice what can be explained by incompetence. No more. Yes there is certainly incompetence here to spare, but there is also a dark undercurrent of malice.

Today one of my coworkers in the foundry was fired based on a complaint from another foundry worker (we'll just refer to her as "Twiggy" for short) that was mostly fiction. Several other foundry workers, including yours truly, were asked to confirm Twiggy's version of events. We didn't. Our crack management team that was only "concerned with the truth," not in any of us "taking sides," fired the guy anyway. So now the entire foundry staff is divided into pro- and anti-Twiggy camps, which is real good for productivity not to mention the constant tension layered on top of an already-dangerous job.

So we are out of here as soon as we find housing in Prescott. I don't mind working for stupid people, but I refuse to work for, or with, malicious stupid people. Fun while it lasted, I guess.

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