Sunday, June 20, 2010

Juneteenth at Arcosanti

June 19 celebrates the Emancipation Proclamation which freed the slaves, specifically, the slaves in Galveston, Texas, whose owners “did not get the memo” until 1865, two full years after Lincoln’s proclamation (and at the end of the Civil War). But finally all the slaves were free in the U.S., on a date somewhere around June 19th, now known as Juneteenth.

The twelfth annual Juneteenth “Celebration of Freedom” was held at Arcosanti, a large property held by a private foundation near Prescott, AZ. I checked out the festival and had a pretty good time.

Arcosanti is the name of a 4,000 acre desert preserve on which Italian-born architect Paolo Soleri built, in the 1970’s, a few concrete buildings to illustrate his vision of urban living for the future. This is somewhat ironic since the buildings are in the middle of absolutely nowhere, hardly urban. But there are some living quarters there and the plan is to someday be able to house 5,000 people in a model community. The principles of the project include an emphasis on self-sufficiency, reliance on solar power, recycling of resources, and in general “good vibes.”

Apparently a few dozen volunteers and architecture students do live there and there are a few accommodations for guests. See .

As for a vision of an urban future, I remain skeptical. Soleri was clearly fond of poured concrete and the buildings, while not exactly like military bunkers, are far from aesthetic. And the whole place is in serious disrepair, so the unpainted concrete structures are pocked and cracked, chipped and patched, discolored by weather; and painted surfaces are faded, cracked, and stained by leaching. Some new construction was evident, even if maintenance was not. The living quarters I glimpsed could only be described as squalor, but then I guess it is basically a neo-hippie commune right now, so maybe the place is not at its best. They have a foundry there where they manufacture bronze windchime bells that are apparently widely appreciated. Sales of those (in the $100’s and the multi-$1000’s each), support much of the operations. The bells do sound beautiful, complex, beautifully resonant and are as well-tuned as they are well-priced. There is also a ceramics center where they make clay chimes for those of us not willing to spring for the bronze. I saw one greenhouse, surely not enough to feed even the volunteers, although the “vision” posters and architectural models show a community rife with acres of greenhouses and people living like bees in a hive.

I took the guided tour, or half of it anyway, and observed an extremely strong sense of founder-worship that was cultish, information-free, and so off-putting, I slipped away. It is possible to be respectful of a founder without being reverent. A little background research on Soleri reveals that he is a serious architect and urban planner (still alive, I believe, although he would be in his 90’s) who would be appalled at such worship.

The setting out in the desert is stunningly beautiful. I stayed in one of the guest rooms, which was a 10 x 14 box made of concrete on five sides, and glass on the sixth. It was austere, to say the least, with no heat or air conditioning, no TV, no telephone, but electricity, clean towels and running water and a tiny bathroom where you could actually take a shower while sitting on the toilet. Still, the room was quiet and reasonably comfortable, and it was wonderful to be awakened at dawn by the sun lighting up the basalt cliffs across the dry river bed.

The Juneteenth celebration was enjoyable. Apparently it is organized and run by Milton Canon, a saxophonist and president of the Prescott Jazz society, with help from his son, the Rev. Michael, and his lovely wife, who poured at the wine and cheese reception. There was no printed schedule of events so it was always a mystery what was going on at any time, but I did enjoy several good acts in the concrete amphitheater. The featured group was Henry Turner Jr. and Flavor, a sort of Blues-Funk-Reggae dance band. ( free mp3 samples at .

Turner rapped about music, black history, and the meaning of Juneteenth, and played lead acoustic guitar. He knows how to lay down a hypnotic groove, although I should say that inhaling some of the second-hand smoke in the air probably enhanced my appreciation. The stage was flanked by large black and white portraits of Robert F. Kennedy and Barack Obama. These were never mentioned or explained, perhaps because the meanings were self-evident. The crowd was disappointingly sparse, maybe half black and half white, but only a hundred or so total. Around the outside of the concrete steps on the top level were booths selling everything from kettle corn and “cowboy dogs” to masks, dashikis and “ethnic” crafts. The whole vibe was very friendly and I was surprised the place was not jammed with people.

Around 8 pm there was a dance under the Arcosanti (concrete) arches. Turner and his group kept continuous hypnotic dance grooves going for hours, including some memorable original reggae tunes, such as “Rastaman in the White House.” Lots of people danced while children ran and played among the forest of legs, eating popcorn and generally having a good time, as I did.


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