Across the street from the “center of the universe”
As the Spring gets on, it seems like a lot of strange coincidences keep happening. The other day while we were making eggs and potatoes for breakfast, we heard a gathering across the street. We walked out in PJs, coffee in hand to see about 50 or so people gathered at the corner to see Roger Ebert’s childhood home dedicated with a plaque. Mr Ebert himself was in town for his annual Roger Ebert Film Festival, and was there for the occasion.
He walked around and greeted all those who attended, and several local notables spoke a few words. I later heard that the woman who taught Mr Ebert how to read and write was there to congratulate him, but that may have been a rumor. All in all it was a good start to the day, and our housemates were eager to tell friends about the event. We like our neighborhood very much so learning that Mr Ebert was once very much a part of it is cool. Growing up, my parents watched Siskel and Ebert a lot and would sometimes let me lay between them and watch too.
I snapped the above photo with my cell phone and put it on my flickr page almost as a habit, and a friend commented. She said, “Sweet! You’re living at the center of the universe: blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/2009/04/410_east_was hington_stre…” I didn’t know until this morning but Roger Ebert keeps a blog. And its a great blog (as to be expected from someone who won a Pulitzer for his writing). He recently wrote a very lucid post about growing up in his Urbana home, which is just two houses away from where we currently live at La Casa. His post begins, “I was born at the center of the universe, and have had good fortune for all of my days. The center was located at the corner of Washington and Maple streets in Urbana, Illinois…” Wow, tell me more.
I’m sure a lot has changed in C-U since then, but many of the places he reminisces about also exist in my memories of this town. I spent time on photography projects in the cemetery, snuck around Altgeld at night, the powerplant, the railroad tracks, cobblestone streets whose tree canopies must be at least 50 ft taller than they were back then. His descriptions of the Urbana of 50 years ago are fascinating, and very much worth reading if you’re familiar with the area.
Ebert was a writer for the Daily Illini, the same student newspaper where I worked during my undergrad years. Although I didn’t write, I took photos. I probably learned more taking photos for the paper than I did sitting through photography classes, mainly because it was an applied learning environment. You really figure out the relationship between aperture and depth-of-field when you come back from an assignment and all your photos are blurry. I can only hope that some day I will earn a Pulitzer with the skillz I picked up from the DI! Ahh but with the digital age its hard to make a living as a photojournalist (not to mention a regular journalist).
My housemates and I keep talking about connecting with the history of our Coop and our community in general. Urbana has a very rich history of social justice and political activism. We are finding that the interconnectedness of the online world is helping us do that, as we find old coop members through facebook and by way of blog comments. Its really a fascinating process to witness, and knowing that there are people like Mr Ebert who keep a blog and seem to have a photographic memory makes me hopefully that there are many connections to still be made.
Here’s a bit about our Center of the Universe. We are surrounded on one side by the “Historic Neighborhood of East Urbana” and on the other side by a somewhat new grouping of condominiums. Our yard, which is just shy of 3 acres, seems to be the biggest undeveloped lot in the area (and the largest patch of turf after the high school). We are constantly wondering what used to be here and why no one built anything out there. About a month ago, a permaculturist named Peter Bane visited us. He grew up in Urbana like Mr Ebert and his grandparents used to grow a bit of food in their yard as well. He had many stories to share about the neighborhood as it was. He told us that our lot was the lowest point in the area, and the reason it was never developed was because it was probably too water-logged. Now it seems to be the only substantial greenspace close by that isn’t a park. Mr Bane taught permaculture to Rob who then designed and planted the garden that exists today. We also heard from the owners of our house that a large community garden existed along the dirt drive the edges the property, but that was a long time ago.
We’ve dug a few holes recently to put up a clothes line and the excavation shed some light on the history. We dug through a layer of bubbly looking cinders from the coal that used to heat the house, probably from when Ebert lived across the street. There is actually still a pile of coal in our basement and the foundation has the hatch that it was shoveled through. These little things remind me of what was here before I moved in and the collective experience of a changing neighborhood in the middle of America. I wonder if as a boy, Mr Ebert spent time in our yard as a lot of neighborhood kids still do. Were there raspberries growing along the fence back then?
The great thing about the internet (and Web 2.0 if you’re into that lingo) is that its conversational. There are feedback tools like commenting and rating (often a thumbs up or down ;-) that allow for two way communication. In reading Ebert’s post I noticed that he replies to many of the comments that readers leave, and so I can only assume that he is excited as well about the potential connections to be made through online participation. In that spirit I’m going to comment on his post with a hyperlink to this one. Thanks for your compelling stories from Washington and Maple Mr Ebert.