A few weeks ago, I traveled to New Harmony, Indiana to play for the wedding of a friend. This small town on the Wabash River was the site of a nineteenth-century Utopian society of break-away German Lutherans, Harmonie. These Harmonists practiced voluntary celibacy, believed the institutional Church was evil, and were trying to save up enough money to travel to Jerusalem so they could watch Christ’s imminent return. After some crises, they sold Harmonie to the proto-socialist, Robert Owen, who turned it into a home for science and free thinking, renaming it New Harmony.
I’ve always been fascinated by Utopian Societies. These fearless adventurers rambled into the the New World, fashioning a life they’d always dreamed. Anything was possible on the frontier, out there on the edges of human existence. Harmonie (and New Harmony) became cities on a hill to which the rest of the world — especially the Old World — could look up to as a goal. Freed from suffocating tyrannies, these were cities of the future as it should become.
The Pruitt-Igoe housing complex was formed with similar goals. Thirty-three monolithic structures were built in 1954 on the north-side of St. Louis as a solution to the public housing crisis. Built in the modernist style, these clean and spacious apartments (known as “the poor man’s penthouse”) were the first time that most of the residents lived in any kind of first-world conditions. It was the best and brightest plan of a new future in urban development. Due to a lack of funding, however, the complex quickly disintegrated into chaos becoming nationally known for its rampant segregation, crime and unsanitary living conditions. By the early seventies, the buildings were destroyed, some by implosion.* The future as it should be ended in failure.
The closest I’ve ever been to living in a Utopian Society was before 9/11 and the global financial meltdown, when I was coming of age. Do you remember the nineties and the early twenty-first century? The world was not perfect by any means, but our biggest problem as a nation was which inappropriate intern the President was boinking. Loans were easy to get. Even after September the Eleventh, the housing market was booming. The forecast was sunny, as the American dream was well within reach of everyone who could finance a loan. The future was becoming as we had always imagined it should be.
I remember that winter day going back to my dorm room from a rehearsal and finding my business-major roommate watching the news as the stock market crashed. I was one semester away from having a bachelor’s degree; I would enter the job market in a few months. Within a week, we all knew that the world we were expecting to find after college had drastically changed. The future we imagined imploded under greed and mismanagement, like Pruitt-Igoe. Like Harmonie, Washington would be overrun by utilitarians. The world had changed. The future as we imagined it to be ended in failure.
Who would have imagined it? What Utopian ever forecasts their own demise, after all? Until the collapse, no one ever imagines they wouldn’t make it to Jerusalem. No one believed that they wouldn’t have a fine job straight out of college. No one believed that all will end as dust — that all ends in failure. No one believes it until it happens.
Perhaps, we, the children the nineties, along with the children of Pruitt-Igoe and of Harmonie will join in a funeral procession for the imagined future that never came. The aborted children of a lost dream, we will carry the burden of the previous generation’s irresponsible choices heavy on our backs. We will buckle under the pressure as we watch our brothers shot and our sisters taken by greed. They will call us lazy and entitled, all the same. We will bear the marks future that should have been, but never came. We are covered in the dust of your shame.
Jerusalem, Jerusalem: long promised but not forgotten, forever the frontier.
“Already in the mind of God / that city riseth fair: / lo, how its splendor challenges / the souls that greatly dare– / yea, bids us seize the whole of life / and build its glory there.” WR Bowie.
* You might recognize Pruitt-Igoe from the famous imploding building sequence in “Koyannisqatsi” (1982). Here’s a clip. Also, if you’re interested in more, check out “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth” (2011) on Netflix. It is a fascinating documentary on the systematic failure on part of society and the decline of the complex.