(Here’s a way to donate to Planned Parenthood.)
In Llano del Rio, in the Antelope Valley in the farther reaches of Los Angeles County, you can still find a few stretches of dusty wall surrounded by creosote, rabbitbrush, and manzanita. They mark the site of a colony meant to produce a socialist alternative to LA, just down the road. The really interesting thing about Llano del Rio isn’t the colony, though, or its fate – which reads like a parody of a utopian socialist project, instantly bogged down with infighting, interminable meetings, cliques and scapegoats, struggles for share ownership and control, and a string of financial and water crises, all playing out in tents and shacks around the open territory where any day now a new city would arise (until the remaining believers relocated to Louisiana). The important thing is the opportunity it gave the visionary architect Alice Constance Austin.
Austin’s envisioned city was both a futuristic project and completely of its moment: the early 20th century feminist revolution of cooperative living and manufacturing that recognized that the work of reproducing society was important work. Cooking and mending and laundry, repair and maintenance, cleaning and pregnancy and childbirth and child care, education and what is now called “emotional labor”: without them the machine stops, but these tasks are rendered invisible, unwaged, set aside in a way that denigrates by the pretense of being special, sacred, private – women’s work. 1095 meals a year, to be planned, budgeted, shopped for and carried home, prepared (washed, peeled, deboned, spiced, boiled, baked, mixed and plated), and cleaned up after. Heat and light, coal and lamp oil, dust and grime, carpets to be beaten and floors to be swept and piles of laundry to be worked on the washboard and cranked through the mangle and hung out to dry, sanitary fittings and water closets to be scrubbed. And the children must be minded and kept and their health and needs attended to, same for the husband, same for the rest of the male and infirm relatives. As Dolores Hayden chronicles in her magnificent The Grand Domestic Revolution (one of my favorite books!), the project that runs from Margaret Sanger to Mary Livermore to Alice Austin to settlement houses is the recognition that this work is of a piece with the larger process of equality and freedom, and that it’s a question of design – of logistics, manufacturing, engineering, architecture – as well as social progress. To turn Hayden’s book into a slogan, the project is remuneration, honor, and technology.
“A communist’s life” – this is Charles Nordhoff, the journalist and author of the delightful firsthand 1875 account Communistic Societies of the United States – “is full of devices for ease and comfort.” Every time I sweep, I think of the Shakers, because we sweep now with Shaker brooms (rather than the bundles of twigs you can see in early photographs of home life): a wide flat brush, bound with wire or twine to a long handle. The handle means you can sweep standing upright, rather than bent to the ground, because sweeping is honorable work. The brush works by analogy to the outspread human hand, not just stirring up the dust but shaping it into piles for collection and disposal. It’s a beautiful, simple design, as beautiful as a Shaker chair (and they made chairs on the understanding that angels might at any point occupy them) and reflective of the need to take sweeping seriously. The Oneida Perfectionists had installed steam baths and steam heat and gaslight by the 1860s (though they kept a small wood burning stove called the “Pocket Kitchen” to nurture social intimacies and hanging out). American communalists created clothespins, the sash balance, advanced ventilation and insulation for buildings, dramatically improved washing machines and mop wringers and cribs, child-scale furniture, cheese presses and fruit peelers and butter churns, food storage and transport, technologies for spinning, weaving, dyeing, ironing, sewing, and institution-scale food prep systems. They analyzed and exploited economies of scale. In the Bronx, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers owned their own apartment buildings, for which they ran the diesel power grid. (They also had a supervised playground, a kindergarten, library, tea room, auditorium, a wholesale system for buying and distributing milk and ice, and a baby carriage garage so you wouldn’t have to haul them up and down stairs.)
Which brings us back to Austin, laying out blueprints to build an infrastructure to put an end to “hatefully monotonous drudgery” for good. Llano del Rio would be a city of utilities and networks: on the same lines and tracks and tunnels laid and dug for gas, water, electricity and telephony, railway cars would route food and laundry and other deliveries to “hubs,” from which small electric vehicles moving through underground tunnels (think of the dense underground networks of pneumatic tubing threaded through cities of the time) would bring them to the basements of low-rise apartment buildings and houses. Meals would arrive prepared in insulated containers from massive central kitchens to be eaten in the dining patio, and dishes returned to be washed by machine. Heated floors would make dusty carpets optional, and rollaway beds and built-in units were offered with an eye to easing sweeping and dusting. Public delivery systems would handle shopping (and goods coming into the city could land on the zoned air-freight pad, a wonderfully 19th century dirigible-age touch). The people who worked in the centralized kitchens and laundries were shareholders in the city like everyone else, and their work – both symbolically and literally – was visible and at the center of things, explicitly skilled, difficult, and rewarded. Tram systems and pedestrian connections could help people get around and route children safely to daycare and school; there was space for private cars (this is southern California, after all) but structured primarily around trips out of town – to LA, to the Pacific, out to Joshua Tree.
The ruins of a few tentative walls remain in the Antelope Valley near Big Rock Creek; the next decades belonged to Christine Frederick’s evil 1929 manual Selling Mrs. Consumer, social engineering in the service of debt and waste, and the magic trick that Hayden documents where the patriarchal home, set aside from production and capitalism – a separate, unwaged space for family – is thus captured as a vast externality to be exploited for free labor and ready markets. But the framework Austin and others laid out is still there and more important than ever: that social justice, technological innovation, and economic equality are conjoined. Remuneration, honor, technology!
Enjoy S. Hazarasingh’s unbelievable Chhedo Na Dekho Na instrumental, from the Bollywood Steel Guitar collection: a delightful highwire jam, glittering like mercury.
Someone put Passions on YouTube, starting here. Imagine the most banal, schematic ’90s soap opera that also featured a near-omnipotent witch with a reanimated doll companion, a guardian angel version of Princess Diana, an orangutan nurse who at one point performed cabaret, doorways to Hell, bizarre metafictional twists … oh, and a stolen papal chalice on which the world’s fate turns. It’s impossible to describe how strange this show is without feeling like you’ve had a pretty solid concussion, and it aired on NBC for eight years, with more than 2000 episodes.
(On a personal note: I’ve got a piece about the Ashley Madison hack, “An Affair to Remember,” in this December’s Artforum.)
(Thanks for reading, as ever.)
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