PRAIRIEFORM

Everyday excursions in the urban landscape

The Modernist Ghosts of Cubberley Community Center

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Clerestory, louvered windows in the modernist Cubberley Community Center in Palo Alto, California
A light-filled but time-worn classroom on the Cubberley campus (photo courtesy of John Kamp)

On an off hour, when no classes or beings are present, the gently modernist Cubberley Community Center in Palo Alto serves as a sort of time machine to those who may visit. Wander its concrete outdoor hallways, or sit in one of its vintage classrooms, and you are transported back to a time when bell-bottoms reigned supreme, Jodie Foster still wore braces, and the moods were sunny and bubblegum-filled. You imagine faux-wood-paneled station wagons dropping off gaggles of bright, shaggy-haired kids; you hear the echoes of a carefree grooviness bouncing off concrete hallways; and you perceive, if you pay attention a bit, the inspiration behind the architecture itself: hope, simplicity, optimism.

But you also notice cracks, and it is hard not to. Faded and partially torn vinyl curtains, decades-old papers bunched up into transom windows, patches of bare earth worn down by both time and benign neglect. Even if you know little of the history of the campus, these details translate less into a patina of age and more so into a suggestion of something less quaint and less bubblegum. Chalk it up to the recurring theme of mid-century modernist structures rarely aging to perfection like their predecessors. Or entertain another, more metaphysical possibility: ghosts – the memories of a particular era, of shuttering and dissolution, remaining tangible and palpable within the center’s hallways and on its grounds well into the present.

An outdoor hallway on the campus of the modernist Cubberley Community Center, in Palo Alto, California
An outdoor hallway on the Cubberley campus (photo courtesy of John Kamp)

Perhaps you sense these ghosts because they seem so out of place given the setting. Cubberley was built in 1956, in an age of intense prosperity, optimism, and sameness, and its architecture reflects this. The numerous buildings that fill its 35-acre campus are at once spare and boldly monochromatic. Its classrooms feature vaulted ceilings and rows of light-filled clerestory, louvered windows, all set within a backdrop of simple off-white walls and standard green chalkboards. One imagines that the first incoming class, who entered at the apex of the Beaver-Cleaver era, played muted but perfectly complimentary center stage within this bright, monochrome, hope-filled setting, effortlessly blending in to a T.

By the late ’60s, however, blending in was ostensibly no longer possible or desirable: day-glo and revolutionary had become the new operating terms of the age, and the world was suddenly colorful, increasingly un-uniform, and decidedly off kilter. There were Jan Brady and Freaky Friday, but also Charles Manson, Kent State. And all the while Cubberley maintained its monochrome pose. Is that what we sense when we step onto its campus and sit in its musty classrooms? A jarring mismatch – between a physical manifestation of optimism and certainty, and the ghosts of a future that no longer felt certain?

Or was it what happened on the campus specifically? As in 1967, when a teacher at Cubberley named Ron Jones devised an experiment to show his incredulous students how the rise of Hitler could have occurred within the structure of a modern democracy. The experiment began with 30 students, who, among other things, were required to salute each other, stand when asking questions, ask questions of no more than three words, and prevent non-members from entering the classroom. By the end of its third day, the number of participants had reached 200, many having joined by choice. By day five Jones decided to call the experiment off early, as students began taking it too seriously and it threatened to spiral out of control. Bright, sunny Cubberley had become the backdrop for not simply an experiment, but a manifestation of the kinds of insidious phenomena that by that time were supposed to be a thing of the past.

Old and vintage light switch in one of the classrooms of the Cubberley Community Center in Palo, California
An original light switch in one of the classrooms (photo courtesy of John Kamp)

In June of 1979 Cubberley’s last graduating class exited its halls, and the school was shut down forever. With the passage of Proposition 13, a once wealthy school district suddenly no longer had the tax revenue to keep three high schools going. And so Cubberley got the axe. On the last day of school a campus band who called themselves Rigor Mortis, and who had formed specifically for the occasion, performed Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” and the Sex Pistols’ “Submission”, in the lunchroom. School was out for good.

The hope among some was that the Cubberley campus would be sold to a developer, with the resulting revenue going directly to the newly cash-strapped school board. However, due to a failure of communication, an administrative error, or some variation thereof, the then-Superintendent of Schools, Newman Walker, announced at the last minute that any funds procured from a land sale could only be earmarked for a limited set of uses. In other words, a potential cash cow had become virtually worthless, and thus the land was never sold. Soon after, the school’s outdoor swimming pool was asphalted over, and the campus became home to a host of ad hoc and revolving uses: a community center, a college campus, a pop-up rock venue, a site for summer schools and camp, and, most recently, an informal homeless shelter.

On August 5, 2013, the Palo Alto City Council voted 7 – 2 to close Cubberley after dark and to forbid people from parking in the campus parking lots and sleeping in their vehicles overnight. 35 acres of sparsely populated, occasionally used buildings and facilities, coupled with ample parking spread throughout, translated into an ideal resting place for Palo Alto’s homeless, particularly those living out of their cars. Not only are privacy and safety easier to come by given the campus’s sheer size and lack of use, but facilities exist there that are difficult to access elsewhere – showers, bathrooms, a library with free internet access. A victim of its own too-good-to-be-true success, the homeless denizens of Cubberley became increasingly greater in number and correspondingly less inconspicuous. Residents began complaining; Palo Alto’s city manager stated that Cubberley had become a “de facto homeless shelter;” and the city council acted. Another wave of people who had meandered Cubberley’s hallways, patronized its facilities, gone. And in their wake: ghosts, and a partially unused, sprawling modernist complex.

The main courtyard of the modernist Cubberley Community Center in Palo Alto, California
The main lawn and courtyard (photo courtesy of John Kamp)

Which of these lingering ghosts you sense on the Cubberley campus and in what combination is impossible to discern, but you sense something. Maybe it’s that the physical relics of a bygone era abound and are perceptible at every turn, and that these serve as cues, as prompts – louvered windows that open and close by way of a hook attached to a long pole; ’60s-era ceiling panels whose contents we perhaps would not like to know of; a musty smell akin to opening up a forgotten box of old records. But the physical and its evocative power has its limits; something else is at work. There’s too much history, too many lingering memories, for there not to be. And this is all the more reason to visit, to see for yourself what ghosts you might encounter there.

And visit soon. Rare is it in the modern era that a parcel of land so large and treated with such benign neglect is allowed to age gracefully and in perpetuity. A time will come when the classrooms will be renovated, the louvered clerestory windows changed out, old carpet removed or replaced, and ceiling panels disposed of. Or the building will simply be demolished, with neither regret nor ceremony. With either eventuality will depart more than simply the physical. The memories, the ghosts of so much hope and optimism, of so many tries and missteps and disillusionment, will fade into the background and ultimately vanish for good, remaining only in the minds of those who had the good fortune to visit before the modernization began.

-John Kamp

Afterward
On Tuesday, November 14, 2014, the Palo Alto School Board voted 4 – 1 in favor of a new five-year lease for the Cubberley Community Center and for a reallocation of funds to significantly repair and renovate the Center.

Botanical spelunkers unite!

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Participants from the first Prairieform Vacant Lands event, Botanical Spelunking 1, which took place in Berkeley and Oakland, California, on May 24, 2015.
Participants from the first Vacant Lands event, Botanical Spelunking 1

The first citizen-science event as part of PRAIRIEFORM‘s Vacant Lands project was held on May 24, in Broakland, CA. We didn’t know what we’d find when we set off to explore what was actually growing within vacant and neglected spaces within the study area. One possibility was: a whole lot of nothing. However, very shortly into the initial scouting and recording we quickly realized just how much plant diversity within the study area there truly is. It was actually pretty astonishing, verging on somehow moving.

We found plants we had never seen before growing in the most unlikely of spaces – cracks between asphalt and concrete, along busy, trafficky thoroughfares, and within narrow, completely unirrigated medians in the middle of multi-lane boulevards. Some were overtly beautiful, some oddly beautiful, some forbidding, others surprisingly detailed as long as you crouched down to get a closer look. All of them, though, we observed admirably eking out an existence within dismal growing conditions. There was something poetic and lovely about this, and I don’t think any of us expected to have that reaction. We felt like we were actually discovering something, something that you would think was so obvious that it wasn’t possible to be discovered in the first place, but it was. So the moniker Botanical Spelunkers, while crafted to be a bit cheeky and just somewhat apt, turned out to be particularly apt.

Over the next few weeks we will be uploading all of the plant data onto the Vacant Lands website. Stay tuned.

John Kamp

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