Patrick Sisson - Writer, Journalist, Cultural Documentarian, Music Lover

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Curbed

June 2017

 

The caravan left on January 23, 1935: 30 people loaded in cars, station wagons, and a red truck, setting out from Spring Green, Wisconsin, for the promise of a desert in Arizona many of them had never seen before. At that point during the brutal winter—the temperature was 40 degrees below zero, and the roadways were canyons carved between snow drifts as high as telephone wires—anywhere else sounded like a perfect destination.


Like many making cross-country journeys in the depths of the Depression, this small band of travelers was equipped with supplies: home-canned vegetables and fruit; winter vegetables from the root cellar; and barrels of sauerkraut, ham, bacon, and eggs straight from the Central Wisconsin countryside. These travelers, however, also made plenty of space for drafting supplies and architectural models amid their provisions.

The 2,200-mile trip Frank Lloyd Wright and his apprentices took to Arizona that winter represented a new chapter in his career. From humble beginnings, including a stop at Etta Hocking’s grocery and meat market in nearby Dodgeville, the journey hopscotched west along a primitive, mostly unpaved version of Route 66, pausing at a series of low-cost hotels and tourist cabins, eventually ending at a site near what would become the architect’s famed Arizona home and studio, Taliesin West.

This was the beginning of the migration (occasionally called the trip or even hejira), the twice-yearly journey between Taliesins that became a ritual for the architect and his apprentices. While he didn’t write about or discuss the trips very often, many of his apprentices wrote of them in books and diaries. The trip was a distillation of Wright’s passions for architecture, cars, and the American landscape.

Wright’s career was redeemed in the desert, and this trip, and the many that followed, were a crucial part of refreshing the architect’s perspective and vision.

“Perhaps Wright’s tendency to romanticize both Taliesins was encouraged by periods of absence and the fact that he spent the most pleasant season in each,” wrote landscape architect and professor Anne Whiston Spirn in the book Frank Lloyd Wright: Designs for an American Landscape. “They came to resemble summer cottage and winter camp rather than year-round dwellings.”

Gene Masselink, Wright’s longtime personal secretary, recalls the end of that trip to Arizona in 1935, as the cars of the caravan “came down from the mountains as the sun was nearing the horizon.” He marveled at the landscape before him, the “tall, graceful saguaro and wavering ocotillo [shrubs]” lit by “long, low streaks of sunlight.” It was “a desert like something that I had never dreamed.”

These journeys began at a time when cross-country driving was still time-consuming and difficult (the first continental roadway, Route 30, was only completed in 1925). A motorcade of architects would follow a circuitous route often dictated by Wright—who, riding in one of his fancy convertibles, sports cars, or coupes, such as a regal Jaguar Mark IV, would floor it across the country. Occasionally stopping at Wright-designed sites, these road trips to and from the desert camp gave Wright a front seat to the country’s changing landscape, and a view of how automobiles were shifting society. It was certainly a repeated theme in his work, as he designed numerous car-influenced structures, including a roadside filling station, standardized gas station, a service station/restaurant, a butterfly wing-shaped bridge, a drive-in national bank, a self-service parking garage, a “paradise on wheels housing project,” and, of course, his Jaguar showroom in New York City.

Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin in 1956. The red and black Mercedes Benz was probably from client Max Hoffman, for whom Wright had recently designed a Mercedes Benz showroom on Park Avenue in New York City.
 The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York)

“He saw [the automobile] become the greatest agent for social, economic, environmental, and personal change that the world has ever known,” wrote Richie Herink in his book on Wright’s automobile obsession, The Car Is Architecture. “America had become a car-culture nation almost overnight and became a country whose people were always on the go traveling somewhere by car.”

And Wright loved to move. A news item in an April 1940 issue of Architects’ Journal, under the heading “Uncovered Wagons,” described the annual pilgrimage as being staged with “a Hollywood-esque exuberance.” An excerpt from a letter described the scene as “a safari consisting of five or six trucks full of boys and girls, pots and pans, grand pianos and concrete mixers.”

Wright began at the back of the caravan “in a handsome new Cherokee red Lincoln Zephyr. As he never drives less than 60 miles an hour, he starts a few days later than the others and of course arrives ahead of time.”


Wright’s long history with Arizona, which began nearly a decade before the migration kicked off, suggests why the desert represented renewal and rebirth for the architect. In the 1920s, he went through a series of false starts, health scares, and experimental plans before recalibrating to reclaim his place as the country’s pre-eminent architect by the end of the ’30s.

At first, however, the desert represented desperation. Wright’s first trip to Arizona came during one of the lowest periods of his career. In 1927, after finishing a string of commissions in California, the architect was desperate for work, and even began driving through the Midwest giving lectures. The lack of jobs and income at the time almost meant the loss of the place he held most dear: Taliesin, the home, studio, and compound he had designed and rebuilt over the last few decades, was nearly at the mercy of creditors (the Bank of Wisconsin seized the property and almost auctioned it off). Wright was only bailed out by the generosity of his patron Darwin Martin, a New York businessman who devised a scheme to raise “stock” (and much-needed capital) for “Frank Lloyd Wright Incorporated” by selling interest in his future projects to investors. (Imagine a GoFundMe page for the world’s most famous architect.)

When a former student, Albert McArthur, invited Wright to consult on the design of the Arizona Biltmore hotel in early 1928, he was in no position to refuse. The terms of the deal show the dire straits the proud architect was in; he would be paid for his expertise, but not given credit for the final design, seemingly anathema to the arrogant Wright. The trip also foreshadowed Wright’s later experiences in Arizona; during the visit, his third wife, Olgivanna, met a doctor who told her that if she brought her husband out to the desert every summer, it would prolong his life by 20 years.

During that initial stay, Wright met a local real estate developer, Alexander J. Chandler, who convinced Wright to work on the San Marcos Hotel, a project that would be doomed by the 1929 stock market crash. The architect leapt at the opportunity, building a small tent village called Ocatilla for his staff and planning a vast series of new buildings for his patron. Wright was expecting a $40,000 pay day, but after the crash, he ended up taking on $19,000 in debt. His only real reward came in the form of publicity, as photographs of his desert camp were included in a few international magazines. Despite his financial straits, he returned to Taliesin in style, purchasing a luxury Packard Phaeton convertible for the drive back to Wisconsin with fees from a client in New York City.

In 1935, Chandler invited Wright to stay at the Hacienda, a polo stable-turned hotel, to escape that year’s brutal winter and get work done under the desert sun. The architect had founded his Taliesin Fellowship, an apprenticeship program for aspiring architects, in 1932, and decided to bring the entire group. During their stay, Wright and the apprentices would develop his Broadacre City concept, Wright’s vision of a pastoral, suburban, car-centered lifestyle. Apprentices, who constructed a huge wooden model of the scheme outdoors during the day, crashed in sleeping bags at night.

The trip to and from Arizona that year would establish the blueprint of Wright’s annual migration. On the way out West, frugality ruled. As apprentice Cornelia Brierly recalled in her book Tales of Taliesin, apprentices drew straws every night to determine who would sleep in the beds of crowded hotel rooms and who would take the sleeping bags. They spent one night in a rickety old hotel near a railroad, which rattled with every passing train. The itinerary included plenty of stops with friends. Henry Allen, the governor of Kansas, took in the Taliesin gang and treated them to dinner in the Prairie-style home Wright had designed for him in 1915. In Tulsa, Wright’s cousin, publisher Richard Lloyd Jones, hosted them, showing them around his own spacious, well-designed home.

Fred Langhorst, who joined the fellowship in 1933, lagged behind the main group due in part to his “enjoyment of tales told by old-timers,” recalls Brierly. He would stop often along the way, chatting up American Indians, cowboys, gas station attendants, and characters at trading posts. He would show up in Chandler with a 10-gallon hat, cowboy chaps, silver-studded boots, and Native American jewelry. Brierly joked that the trip west turned “an Illinois Mark Twain buff to a dedicated westerner.” Landhorst would be unceremoniously kicked out by Wright weeks later because he stayed up late reading Western lore and missed the morning wakeup call.

The return trip was more memorable, beginning with the sendoff. The caravan, four cars and a stake truck, was pressed for space, as everyone had acquired new possessions, such as American Indian blankets and souvenirs. Wright simply repacked the truck himself, unpacking bags and stuffing personal items into the gaps between the stakes.

Their route, a meandering journey through the Southwest, would find them basking in the scenery of the American West while indulging Frank Lloyd Wright’s childhood fantasies. They rolled through the Grand Canyon on the first morning, past outcroppings of red rock and juniper, and camped out on the rim of the natural wonder. The following day, their sleeping bags were covered in snow.

Frank Lloyd Wright and his wife Olgivanna in 1948 at Taliesin West. The car is a British 1937 AC Sports Tourer.
 The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York)

“While cooking breakfast, we had a glorious view of the sunrise flooding the canyon with changing patterns of light and shadow that spotlighted buttes, pinnacles, and rock castles of awesome dimensions,” wrote Brierly. “Architecture of the master builder!”

The next move showed just how rambling the journey would become. Wright began talking about the excitement of gold rushes in the region, and, while scanning the map, happened upon a town in Nevada called Goldfield. That became the next destination. On the way, the crew pitched camp on a dry Death Valley lake bed, waking up to a sandstorm that forced them to change clothes inside their sleeping bags (breakfast was bacon and eggs, “true grit style”).

When they arrived in Goldfield, they found tall grass and abandoned homes. A single Victorian hotel still operated, with grizzly old-timers cluttered around the red velour seats of the bar (which once went for $100 a night for a big concert), true believers who felt there was still gold in the hills. The owner of the hotel, Brierly recalls, was a voluptuous blond woman who wore a gold belt from which hung a clutch of gold keys nearly a foot long.

Next, Wright declared the group needed to see Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon in Utah. After a detour through Vegas, they arrived at the parks, where a park ranger told the architect that the best view of the Grand Canyon was in a small town called Tuweep. Wright turned the caravan around and the apprentices got separated and lost, eventually ending up at a small log cabin in the middle of nowhere. At one point, Betty Barnsdall, an apprentice (and daughter of Aline Barnsdall, who commissioned the famous Hollyhock House), had just about had it. She jumped out of her car, marched toward Wright’s vehicle, and yelled, “God damn you, Mr. Wright, I’m not going any further!” which set off a shouting match. After Olgivanna calmed his frayed nerves, everyone settled down and the car charted a course back to Wisconsin.


That tumultuous Taliesin trip was the first of many journeys to Arizona. Wright would get sick the following year; he spent the summer at the Jokake Inn in Phoenix recovering from pneumonia. Wright and Olgivanna decided it would be best for him to make Arizona a permanent winter home. They scouted out locations in North Phoenix for a house and studio, finally finding several hundred acres up against the McDowell Range on the Maricopa Mesa. He immediately sent a telegram to his secretary, Gene Masselink: WEATHER WARM. BEAUTIFUL SITE IN HAND COME JOKAKE INN SOON YOU ARE READY. BRING SHOVELS, RAKES, HOES, AND ALSO HOSE. EIGHTEEN DRAFTING BOARDS AND TOOLS. WHEELBARROW, CONCRETE MIXER, SMALL KOHLER (ELECTRICAL PLANT) AND WIRE. MELODEON, OIL STOVES FOR COOKING AND HEATING. WATER HEATER, VIOLA, CELLO, RUGS NOT IN USE AND WHATEVER ELSE WE NEED.”

The adventure of camping out and traveling throughout the Southwest prepared the early fellows for the rigors of building a permanent camp in the desert. They lived on the margins; the encampment was initially called Sun Trap. Tents were put up for living quarters. There was no heat, electricity, or water; that was ferried back from Scottsdale, a trip over the open desert that was hazardous at best, and during desert rain storms that flooded the valley, treacherous.

Wright designed a series of “sleeping boxes” for himself, his family, and the apprentices: small wood and canvas structures with barely enough space for a bed and closet. A concrete slab would eventually connect the boxes, and over time, the structure became more civilized and less tent-like. The entire first year at Taliesin West was about landscaping and digging; Olgivanna remarked that “the whole opus looked like something we had been excavating, not building.”

Wright, however, found the rough lifestyle invigorating, drawing inspiration from the new landscape and environment. A story from the Frank Lloyd Wright Monograph illustrates the appeal of the barren landscape. During the early years of Taliesin, the very wealthy mother of an apprentice came to visit the site, staying at the Biltmore Hotel and driving out to visit during the day. When she first saw the sleeping boxes, she was aghast, unable to believe anyone would choose such “uncivilized circumstances.”

Mrs. Wright informed her that, while the hardships are severe, her husband could “plunge himself into the desert with enthusiasm” (she also suggested that “all the great philosophies in the world, you know, derived from a desert environment or a mountainous one”). Intrigued, the woman then asked to sleep in one of the tents. She ended up staying for 10 nights, and would later write Olgivanna that although she had traveled in luxury the whole world over, booked rooms in only the finest of hotels, and saw all the usual sights one should see,”the memory of those days in the tent stay with her as the most memorable and wonderful in her life.”


As Taliesin took shape and Wright’s career was reinvigorated by a series of showstopping designs in the late ’30s, such as the SC Johnson Wax headquarters and Fallingwater, the architect, now on top of the world, settled into a familiar routine, leaving for Arizona around Christmas and returning to Wisconsin after a massive annual Easter party. “My office is wherever I am,” he would remark.

The road trip caravans also became routine. Wright would set off in one of his high-end cars, almost always sporting a custom Cherokee Red paint job (which he first used on a 1935 Oldsmobile). Wright had a love affair with cars ever since he started driving his friend’s yellow Stoddard-Dayton Roadster around Oak Park, Illinois, in 1909 (Wright’s son wrote that “the citizens of Oak Park called his dad’s car the Yellow Devil, and not many days passed before the police department threatened to confiscate it”). Wright would purchase 85 cars and trucks for himself and the Taliesin Fellowship between 1911 and 1959, and spoke of them frequently. In her 1959 book Our House, Olgivanna said that the topics at the dinner table at Taliesin were “moving pictures, foreign cars, and third in line, and very sparingly, architecture.”

The apprentices would usually pile into “blue-collar” cars, such as Bantams, Crosleys, and Hillmans, both roadsters and station wagons. On many trips, the caravan also included a Bantam Panel Truck that was converted into the Brock Dinky Diner, which served meals out the back. They set off when “the winter hit Wisconsin hard,” wrote apprentice Donald Hoppen, with two big trucks packed with plans, models, and plenty of food, including farm-cured hams and rounds of cheese. Wright occasionally had a thing about packing; John Howe recalls Wright pulling everyone’s suitcases out and trying to repack them. The apprentices stood aghast until Mrs. Wright called her husband inside for coffee and cookies, at which point the apprentices repacked their belongings.

Frank Lloyd Wright and his wife Olgivanna enjoy a 1949 Crosley Hotshot.
 The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York)

The ride down was rushed, with apprentices only getting a week or two to make the trip. They’d cover 400 mile a day, a big accomplishment before interstate highways. The end of the migration was always an exciting, celebratory moment, in part because the last leg was so treacherous. Brierly wrote that, at the time Taliesin West was first settled, Camelback Road was the only paved road in Phoenix. The entire area was an open range, and could flood in a moment during a rainstorm.

After turning off the pavement onto unpaved desert roads, the apprentices would begin to see signs of Taliesin life. Wright designed and installed a series of abstract signs along the way: thin posts with a trademark square spiral indicating the encampment was approaching. Hoppen recalls weaving down dirt roads, past forests of saguaro and cholla cactus and ironwood trees, and suddenly catching a glimpse of the canvas roofs and outer walls. A large stone tower on site, draped with red bougainvillea, might as well have been a flag. The final approach crossed over a gravel “moat,” a barrier erected to discourage rattlesnakes.

Hoppen remembers one reunion celebrated with bottles of cheap Mexican rum bought in El Paso. He got so drunk raising toasts that evening that he almost hugged a cholla cactus before finding his tent at 2 a.m.

The ride back was a more leisurely affair. Stops were often made at Wright buildings or projects. Wright’s longtime photographer, Pedro Guerrero, remembers one such trip in 1940. The caravan made its first stop at an Indian trading post in Tuba City, Arizona; he was told the route had been planned to give apprentices the experience of traveling through American Indian territory in Arizona and New Mexico (Wright also enjoyed stopping at trading posts and buying Indian rugs). In an open field in Dodge City, Kansas, the crew gathered around the Dinky Diner for breakfast.

The trips back followed more creative routes, says apprentice Edgar Tafel—each one different. The apprentices slept outdoors in sleeping bags, weather permitting, and traveled as fast as they could, despite breakdowns, flat tires, and other mishaps.

They also could be more entertaining. One year, apprentice David Dodge, who was taking the wheel on the way back, told everyone in his car there was absolutely no eating or smoking while driving. Fellow apprentice Wes Peters decided to play a prank on him, freezing a block of limburger cheese and hiding it under the driver’s seat. By the time the midday sun hit after they left Taliesin, the car reeked, and Dodge turned on his passengers, who repeatedly denied breaking his rules. Dodge eventually turned off the road, investigated, and discovered that Peters had gotten the best of him.

Over the years, the caravan would see the landscape change, as roadside diners, highways, and gas stations began to sprout up along the route. Wright and his apprentices witnessed Phoenix grow before their eyes. By 1950, the road to Taliesin was paved, and Scottsdale wasn’t a cow town, but a fast-growing resort community. Wright would eventually watch from the back seat.

The apprentices also saw the impact of the Depression. In 1937, on the drive back to Wisconsin, they were caught in the middle of the Dust Bowl, a period of severe dryness and dust storms that ravaged the middle of the country in the 1930s. During the trip, Brierly recalled that dust surged into the hubcaps of cars and entered through every crack of the station wagons. Driving through Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas, and Illinois, they saw devastation everywhere; they placed wet cloths over their mouths to block the incessant dust. Bloated, dead cattle lined the fields. “No greenery appeared anywhere, just expanses of scorched earth,” she wrote.


While there were a few years when Wright didn’t go to Taliesin West—including the winters of 1942-’43 and ’43-’44, and in 1940, as Tafel remembers, when he took the train and let the apprentices make the journey on their own—he upheld the annual pilgrimage even as his stock continued to rise. During the last nine years of his life, he executed 300 commissions and traveled overseas to London, Italy, Zurich, Wales, Paris, and Iraq, as well as to New York City to oversee the Guggenheim. But he still found time to hit the road.

Why did the migration matter? On one level, as Herink wrote about the potential relationship between Wright’s car collection and his architectural designs, “a car is just a car.” Perhaps these trips were simply a fun means of getting from point A to point B. But there’s a case to be made that the change in scenery, and the influence of a new landscape, was an inspiration. The fallow desert was fertile for Wright’s imagination, especially during the last few prolific decades of his life.

“In Wisconsin, everything is softened by erosion,” he wrote. “Out there [in Arizona], everything was sharp, savage. Everything was armed in the desert, and it was an entire new experience, and so following out the same feeling for a structure … it had to be absolutely according to the desert.”

Wright, after all, was obsessive about landscapes and integrating his designs into their surroundings. He constantly tinkered with both Taliesins, especially in Wisconsin. He reworked and redesigned his farm—his wife said “he would often study the fields where the grains made patterns, on the landscape, as he had laid them out. There was not a square of earth that escaped his constantly alert, creative eyes.” He built dams and lakes, whose shorelines he would reshape, and when he expanded his property, he would continue to add new items, including a pine grove and a snack bar overlooking the Wisconsin River.

According to Spirn, he was obsessed with the roadways around his central Wisconsin home, and would even play with the road grader. “His attention to the alignment of the roads reflected his fascination with automobiles and movement,” she wrote.

And, after his Broadacre City plan laid out his anti-urban ideas, he would spend decades railing against cities (he famously quipped that the modern city was good for “banking and prostitution”). Maybe his firsthand experience with cars and how they changed the landscape reinforced his beliefs.

Perhaps it was the symbolism of that journey that meant so much. The self-made man had fallen from grace, wandered off the path, and finally found salvation in his two Taliesins at the end of a long, winding career. It isn’t a jump to imagine that may have helped fuel his romance with the open road.

Curbed

August 2017

Tom Gaffney has the type of client list that other contractors and designers work a lifetime to assemble. Actors and celebrities, Fortune 500 companies, CEOs, the one percent—often the one percent of the one percent—seek out his Vermont-based firm for custom jobs in their homes and offices, both in the United States and around the world. What sets Gaffney and his firm apart from the normal circuit of high-end contractors is that they entered this rarefied world not via cutting-edge architectural work or coverage in glossy shelter magazines, but by building the best bullet-resistant check-cashing stores.

Gaffco Ballistics is part of a small fraternity of firms that specialize in personal safe rooms for high-end clients—built-in, fortified shelters that have been called the next big trend in luxury real estate.

About 30 years ago, Gaffney, then a plumber and recent immigrant from Ireland living in Mount Vernon, New York, was getting by on odd jobs, bartending and truck driving, when his cousin asked him for help upgrading his check-cashing business. The former handyman, who still retains a trace of Irish brogue from growing up in County Roscommon, explains that his firm’s big innovation was creating a self-contained, protected room, one that went beyond bulletproof glass at the cashier window and enclosed the clerk in a six-sided lockbox.

“In the ’80s, when crack was king, people had been breaking into check-cashing stores,” he says. “In the South Bronx, Harlem, and New York, guys would even break in above and below the booths. We figured out that you needed to box the whole thing in ballistic glass and steel. You could only get through with a welding torch.”

Designing check-cashing spaces opened the door to designing banks, then post offices, and eventually government buildings overseas. Gaffney went from dealing with water pressure and pipes to selling clients on different types of bulletproof walls (“Level 1 can stop a 9mm, AK-47-proof would be Level 8”) when 9/11 revolutionized his business. Suddenly, some of the biggest companies in Lower Manhattan were asking him to build bulletproof and impact-resistant conference rooms. When he’d finish—”We’d rip out an existing conference room over the weekend, replace it with ballistic walls and finishes, and people would come back Monday morning and not know the difference”—CEOs started asking if he could swing by their penthouses and mansions to build safe rooms. Those Bronx boxes had gone upscale.

Ever since, business has been booming. Gaffney has seen a steady 5 to 10 percent jump over the last few years and forecasts a 30 to 40 percent increase in business in 2016 due to the election. Others in the industry have seen a similar rush by the ultrarich to build their own secret safe havens: Robert Vicino, founder of Del Mar, California-based bunker-building company Vivos, says that “for multibillionaires, a few million is nothing. It’s really just the newest form of insurance.”

“Post-9/11 was more of a knee-jerk reaction—we need security now,” Gaffney says. “Now, there’s a steady stream of information, terrorist attacks all the time, the ISIS effect. There are so many things happening in the world. People are concerned about the lack of security and feel the need to be vigilant themselves.”

Due to non-disclosure agreements, Gaffney can’t name his clients or show off his work. Even if he could, it wouldn’t often be clear where his firm’s work begins and others’ work ends. State-of-the-art safe rooms are vastly different from the isolating refuge shown in the Jodie Foster film Panic Room. Decorated in high-end finishes and materials, most panic rooms double as another space: a family movie room that can stop armed insurgents, or a child’s bedroom that can withstand a dirty bomb.

Today, shelters and bunkers are an escape from community, motivated by a belief that our society is fraying and unable to cope with coming civil unrest, terrorism, or other destabilizing attacks.

Gaffney’s work is part of a growing, and invisible, architecture of American anxiety. From the high-end safe rooms that firms such as Gaffco construct to shelters laid out in backyards and empty fields across the country, a growing number of Americans feel they need to be self-sustaining in a world of rising threats (the current situation in North Korea isn’t helping matters). Trend storieshave tracked survivalists packing up and digging shelters in the “American Redoubt,” the sparsely populated Mountain West states such as Idaho and Montana.

While there’s no hard and fast way to calculate how many shelters or safe rooms exist across the country—to preserve client confidentiality, one bunker room company owner says, records are shredded after jobs are finished—every company interviewed for this article says their business has grown over the last decade, and most say work has picked up considerably during the election year.

Self-reliance is one of the country’s foundational myths, and shelter construction is not a new phenomenon. But there’s something very different inspiring many of today’s shelter builders and safe room owners. Early Americans built shelters in response to many of the same weather issues we face today, from floods to tornadoes; cowboys and settlers on the plains would often dig storm shelters, caves sometimes called “fraidy holes,” before setting to work on aboveground homes. Built with neighbors, they were a symbol of a new settlement and an expanded community.

Today, shelters and bunkers are an escape from community, motivated by a belief that our society is fraying and unable to cope with coming civil unrest, terrorism, or other destabilizing events. Public opinion polls and studies find the country on edge: fear of an imminent terrorist attack is at its highest level since 9/11, 76 percent of Americans believe life will be worse for the next generation, and nearly two-thirds of us are greatly worried about climate change. But perhaps most damning, in the face of these issues, is that only 19 percent of Americans trust the government all or most of the time, according to a Pew Research Center study released last fall. The rate in 1958 was a staggering 77 percent.

In an age of rising anxiety, and perhaps the worst political polarization in our nation’s modern history, this type of private infrastructure is growing. Not everyone believes, say, that a nuclear attack is coming tomorrow. But studies of public pessimism, and the meteoric growth of the prepper phenomenon, suggest that many feel the worst isn’t necessarily that far away, and that when cataclysms do happen, we’re on our own.

“I think the people who don’t prepare are in a state of denial,” says Richard Duarte, an author who writes about preparedness (and, for the record, doesn’t have a shelter, bunker, or safe room, just a cache of supplies and extensive training). “They think that nothing will happen, and that’s just not the case.”

A Miami-based former investment banker whose experiences with Hurricane Andrew in 1992 led him to become an advocate for preparedness, Duarte sketches an urban doomsday scenario familiar to fans of post-apocalyptic films.

Mankind has become so dependent on electricity and the convenience of modern society that we’d be lost without our computer-reliant infrastructure, electronics, and fast Wi-Fi.

“Whether it’s a natural disaster or manmade disaster, we’ve never relied on power and electronics as much as we do now,” he says. “Now, without power, our buildings are out of order. One hundred years ago, we were all preppers because we were self-reliant. Now, we’re so much less self-reliant.”

In the American cultural imagination, shelters are associated with the big bomb. Americans became obsessed with bomb shelters amid the paranoia of the Cold War. While corrugated rooms served as the backdrops for countless science fiction and horror plots from the 1950s through the 1980s, our true obsession with shelters came to the fore in 1961.

Decorated in high-end finishes and materials, most panic rooms double as another space: a family movie room that can stop armed insurgents, or a child’s bedroom that can withstand a dirty bomb.

On July 25, 1961, President Kennedy delivered a speech about the potential fallout from a nuclear attack and asked Congress to appropriate $93 million for shelter construction. The terrifying message sank in with the American public, who immediately embarked on a massive DIY shelter-building spree. Contractors sprang up overnight, local governments stumbled about organizing community building plans, and Civil Defense officials distributed no fewer than 22 million copies of the official Family Fallout Shelter manual to anxious Americans. Mass media outlets such as Life magazine devoted articles to the big questions (surviving fallout) and the smaller issues (decorating shelters).

In a lesson that shouldn’t be lost on today’s bunker builders, the craze—further fueled by the Soviet announcements in August of 1961 that they were blockading East Berlin and resuming atomic tests—quickly died down, not due to fatalism or fear, but to a swing in public opinion. Shelter owners were nervous over the morality of “gunning,” or shooting neighbors trying to find space in their shelter. Unease about the morality of ignoring a fellow American in need boiled over when a Jesuit priest, Father L.C. McHugh, counseled Americans that it was “misguided charity” not to shoot a neighbor trying to invade a shelter already filled to capacity.

Outrage over that statement fueled a round of public doubt over both the efficacy of shelters and the desirability of surviving to face a post-apocalypse world. Even a military man as steadfast as former President Eisenhower was quoted as saying he wasn’t building a shelter, and if he was in one without his family, he “would just walk out,” since he “would not want to face that world.”

While the threat of nuclear annihilation has receded since the Cold War era, increased geopolitical tensions and fears of terrorism continue to feed the market for shelters today. According to Brad Roberson, a marketing manager for Rising S Bunkers in Texas, it’s a pretty big industry. From the “sobering reminders” that come from tornadoes to increased feelings of instability, business has been growing.

“If you asked people in the ’50s, they were concerned about Communists and the threat of war,” he says. “Today, the general populace isn’t as worried about nukes falling from the sky as they are about civil unrest. Most people are concerned about the collapse of the social system and being threatened by their neighbors.”

Lisa, an owner of a family bunker in Longview, Texas, who wished to remain anonymous and whom Curbed contacted via a bunker-owner community message board, agrees with Roberson. She and her husband built a shelter for themselves and their three children to protect against civil unrest and the threat of running out of energy.

“We’re not moving to renewables fast enough, and I think that if the grid is interrupted, within a week there will be chaos,” she wrote via email. “Even now, when there are fuel shortages and warnings, people go crazy and suddenly start stockpiling.”

At first, when Lisa’s husband suggested the shelter, she thought it was stupid. But after reading up on the topic, she came around. Their personal underground bunker, which can sleep seven and cost $80,000 (one of the most popular models at Rising S, a 10-by-50-foot shelter in the Freedom series with two additional 10-by-10-foot rooms, costs $159,000 after delivery and install, and the average customer spends $200,000 after customization), sits a five-minute run from their back door. Stocked with enough food and supplies to last a year, the space has been decorated with wallpaper, carpet, and family photos to look “cozy.”

“A house offers minimal protection,” she writes. “What would you do if an angry mob of 20 turned up outside your house and the police were not responsive? Exactly.”

Lisa is quick to explain that she didn’t come to the decision to invest in a bunker lightly. Being bombarded with bad news all the time makes it natural to want to prepare. Her family “doesn’t wear tin-foil hats,” she says. They just don’t take their safety for granted.

Roberson sees the same mindset in his customers, many of whom are not members of the prepper community. There’s an extremely affluent market interested in privacy and security. Rising S offers fully customizable protection (nuclear fallout, electromagnetic pulses, ground-penetrating radar) and plans, from smaller, no-frills spaces to vast underground bunkers with all the creature comforts of a high-end home, including pools, exercise rooms, underground shooting ranges, and media rooms with 95-inch flatscreens. Their biggest project was a 6,500-square-foot underground bunker for a Republican “political financier” that could sleep 50 people.

“People aren’t as turned off by the idea of having a Plan B,” he says. “You can deal with all the threats that come at you in one fell swoop, from severe weather to whatever else comes through the door.”

Roberson says Rising S always sees an upswing during election years; the firm installed 60 to 70 shelters in 2015 and are on track to do even more this year. And while marketing may suggest otherwise, the customer base doesn’t necessarily fit the stereotype of conservatives afraid of an overreaching federal government.

“I would say people from both sides of the aisle, conservative and liberal, are concerned about the stability of our political landscape and our economic status,” he says. “The people that buy this product feel like we’re rapidly approaching a tipping point. Most people aren’t choosing ignorance. They’re fairly well-informed, they’re not waiting for the evening news to deliver information. You can see fairly crazy extreme situations happening in other places, and people are concerned about that happening in our backyard without having a solution. It’s not that it’s a probability, it’s a possibility. That’s enough of a motivating factor.”

Steve Humble, who owns Creative Home Engineering, a company that specializes in safe rooms and concealed spaces, says most clients just want to feel prepared.

“These are people who can afford it,” he says. While some like to set up hidden bars or invest in Bruce Wayne-type triggers for their secret studies (Humble has a secret room in his home that opens when you play the James Bond theme song on a piano), most are dentists and doctors who want extra security for their dream house, or celebrities who face more immediate threats.

“Some people get death threats on a regular basis,” he says. “These people rely on us to protect their families.”

Humble doesn’t take that responsibility lightly. He and his crew test every door themselves, dragging them out to the desert near their warehouse in Gilbert, Arizona, and literally shooting them.

What’s the psychological toll of this kind of constant worry, of expecting the worst outcome and investing in the aftermath? Catherine Hooper, a New York-based safety consultant who founded Black Umbrella, which creates personalized escape plans and preparedness packets, says that she’s seen a consistent level of interest in this subject since starting her business in 2009. After seeing residents of New Orleans suffer through the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, she kept thinking to herself, “How could they not be more prepared?” She realized she couldn’t criticize them if she hadn’t prepared for a similar situation herself. After researching and finding no existing service, lots of incomplete and often contradictory information, and lots of interest from her friends, she decided to launch Black Umbrella.

Hooper has helped hundreds plan for what to do during a disaster and what comes next, and she says even the exercise of preparing can be emotional.

“Somebody who makes multimillion-dollar decisions multiple times a day”—Hooper tends to deal with very wealthy clients—”you’d think they’d be good at this, but it’s not easy,” she says.

People tend to invest in these kinds of services after a big life event, such as a wedding or the birth of a child. Hooper often sees people lose it when they start thinking about what they would do if they were separated from their children or spouse. Many quickly reach an edge while figuring out escape routes from Manhattan, or where to meet up in case certain family members can’t be located.

“If I had a product that I could put in a box and say here, for $10,000, you can have what’s in this box and it’ll keep you safe in an emergency, clients would much rather do that than do drills or create an escape plan,” she says. “We sell a lot more of the physical products than I ever anticipated, partially because people think, ‘I have a gas mask and I’m safe.’ It’s a lot harder to have that conversation with the spouse about what to do if they’re separated.”

In most cases, safe rooms and shelters are backups and precautions, structures that thankfully don’t get used often. But for at least one country, bomb shelters and safe rooms are a way of life.

Ever since the 1950s, residential construction in Israel has been required by law to include a safe room, or merkhav mugan dirati, a reinforced concrete space to shelter inhabitants from missile attacks, especially in areas near the occupied territories. More than 10,000 have been built. Ever since the threat of gas attacks became prevalent during the Gulf War, building codes favor above-ground shelters. Public buildings such as train stations are built to withstand direct hits, and in older apartment buildings, residents often share space in stairwells when sirens go off, leading to sometimes uncomfortable minutes spent huddling with neighbors who just got out of the shower.

“It’s a challenge to do good architecture with this constraint, but we do it,” says architect Ami Shinar. “We live with this. It’s not used most of the time as a shelter, but we’re used to it.”

Shinar’s firm, which has designed everything from buildings for the Navy in Haifa to residential towers, has worked on many projects shaped by these requirements. For example, a forthcoming train station in Jerusalem features a concrete slab over the tracks, as opposed to the typical glass atrium, and no windows on the east-facing walls, as a precaution against unexpected attacks. He sees the American bunker builders as being perhaps a bit naive.

“I lived in America for five years, so I know a little bit of your perspective, as a big country away from war zones,” says Shinar. “You have Americans doing shelters for doomsday, and that’s a bit crazy. Israel is tiny, like a big city, surrounded all around by war zones. Syria is falling apart, the Palestinians want their freedom. This is a country used to such unfortunate circumstances.”

An interesting thing has happened over the last decade of conflict in Israel, as social media and missile attacks have both become parts of everyday life: Shelters have been normalized. During attacks in the summer of 2014, when Hamas missile strikes reached Tel Aviv and partially shut down the city, Israelis reacted exactly as one might expect in an age of Snapchat. The Facebook group Shelter Selfies featured pictures of smiling teens, cute pets, and neighbors in towels, all caught in stairwells or safe rooms and making the best of it.

According to American photographer Adam Reynolds, who worked in Israel and the Palestinian territories as a freelancer and did a photo series documenting safe rooms in Israel, these spaces represent a part of the country’s visual vernacular. Children would have birthday parties in the unused safe room of an apartment building, and many had dual uses, including as synagogues or dance studios.

“You can see fairly crazy extreme situations happening in other places, and people are concerned about that happening in our back yard without having a solution. It’s not that it’s a probability, it’s a possibility. That’s enough of a motivating factor.”—Brad Roberson

“At first, I approached these spaces as weird bomb shelters that had other functions,” he says. “But moving forward with the project, it was more about the Israeli national psyche and character, and what these spaces represent.”

Reynolds found that Israelis had varying perspectives on the shelters. Some saw them as a necessary evil and others felt the money spent on this infrastructure should go toward peace initiatives instead. He said there was always the shadow of the Holocaust: it’s happened once and it could happen again, so people need to be ready.

Tamar Blumenfeld, a young Tel Aviv artist who drew comics about life during wartime for the Israeli daily Haaretz, will release her work as a graphic novel early next year. The situation that summer created scores of funny situations—catching a cute neighbor in their underpants in a stairwell, or being stuck at a singles bar when the sirens went off. It was incredibly stressful, but people made the most of the situation.

Her book deals with the more lasting impacts of the attacks and of life in shelters. During one raid, she headed toward shelter and recalls not thinking about, or looking for, her husband. She says moments like that made her begin to doubt their relationship.

“It had a lot to do with me and my ex-husband separating,” she says. “It makes you think about your life. Why didn’t I think about him, something is wrong, isn’t he my top priority? Even if it’s not direct, it affects you in some way.”

But not every new safety structure signifies something troubling, even subconsciously. For many, confronting the threat, and making the realization, reflection, and solution part of their home, can be empowering.

“Ignoring the threat doesn’t make me feel confident,” says Hooper. “Hoping I can withstand a real challenge, hoping alone doesn’t make me feel good. I have a skill set and have tested myself, and I know I can do it. I think that’s a more healthy and confident attitude.”

For someone in the doomsday business, Hooper can be incredibly sanguine about preparing. Americans are constantly fed the notion that we’re a few meals away from disaster, she says, and that’s wrong. She knows that, not from her research or a well-laid plan, but from being a New Yorker, living through 9/11 and the 2003 blackout, and seeing small acts of community kindness, small acts between strangers. People go to extreme lengths to help each other, one of the key lessons of a day that, in hindsight, has been overshadowed by a sense of fear.

“There’s some complexity and nuance in the way people can confront these challenges,” says Hooper. “It would be my personal preference that people confront these security issues by becoming more a part of the community, better at tribe building, and more resilient. The trend appears to be heading towards social isolation and pessimism, to build an island in my house and close the door. It’s great to have in your back pocket, but it doesn’t replace everyday situational awareness.”

“I don’t want to critique other Americans, but it’s like the difference between working out and plastic surgery. Both things will get you where you want to be, but one thing will leave you more prepared. I would love to see our country do more of the hard work.”

Shelter from the storm

Today, climate change and the more powerful storms it drives are the most immediate threats to homes, leading architects and insurance companies to continually rethink building standards. A study of NOAA data suggests that sea-level rise may cause $882 billion in property loss by 2100, and in areas like Miami and Hawaii, one in three homes will be lost. The federal government just funded its first trial program in Louisiana to relocate climate refugees. According to Tom Hurd, chair of the American Institute of Architects’ Disaster Assistance Committee, the group is increasingly seeing the need for better design to accommodate more frequent and stronger storms due to climate change.

“Storm events are getting worse and more frequent,” Hurd says. “There’s a lot we can do, and a lot that we’ve known about. Often just a small amount of money can make a big difference.”

Hurd and his colleagues have gone through postmortems in places such as Moore, Oklahoma, which was hit by a deadly string of tornadoes in 2013, and researched the damage to help devise more stringent building codes, updating government guidelines, such as FEMA P-361 and FEMA P-320, which govern construction of safe rooms in a variety of buildings.

The insurance industry also plays a role in helping to test new materials and advocate for better codes and standards. The recently opened Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety in Chester County, South Carolina, looks like the coolest movie set in the world, a six-story hangar that can recreate Category 3 hurricanes with a wall of more than 100 high-powered fans.

“A slight shift in the wind code could have prevented 75 percent of the damage in Moore,” Hurd says. “It’s not as easy to change for existing structures, but it can make a big difference for new buildings.”

Verge

November 2017

Simon Wheatcroft, blind marathon runner, trains on his local football field, using the feel of the land to guide him through the goalposts near his home in Doncaster, UK.

 

It’s a literal road to nowhere. Stretching out from a roundabout outside the Robin Hood Airport in Doncaster, a small village in Northern England, it’s a wholly unremarkable stretch of slowly cracking pavement, bushes, and weeds, an idle strip of asphalt near long-term parking and a bland business park.

For 35-year-old runner Simon Wheatcroft, however, this stretch of unused roadway may as well be his gym, training center, and proving grounds, his own private version of the 72 stone steps that make up a Rocky montage. Wheatcroft knows every inch of this one-third-mile strip of asphalt — from the contours of the roadway to the feeling of its double yellow lines of paint under his sneakers. Despite the mind-numbing bore of jogging such a short length in endless loops, Wheatcroft had to memorize it. He’s blind.

Imagine getting up from your desk or couch, closing your eyes, and walking to the other end of the room, or perhaps crossing the street in midday traffic. Most people wouldn’t have the audacity to do that without guidance or aid. Meanwhile, Wheatcroft has run the New York and Boston marathons, covered 100 miles in the Sahara Desert, and — perhaps most impressive — sprinted solo alongside the curving roads and streets of his small corner of rural England, sometimes alongside oncoming traffic, all without the benefit of actually seeing where he was going. Instead, he used the twin yellow lines on the side of the road, feeling them through his sneakers, to avoid stepping into the road. (Cars usually make it a point to avoid hitting people, he says, and honestly, they hate cyclists more.)

For the last few months, Wheatcroft has been training along these roads with renewed intensity. Though he’s finished countless races and even ultramarathons, he’s now focused on the New York Marathon, the premier event of its kind. He’s completed the race twice before, but this year carries another challenge. Thanks to the technology of a Brooklyn-based startup called WearWorks, and their prototype wearable navigation device, Wheatcroft aims to be the first blind runner to cover the course unaided and unassisted.

When it comes to technology developed for the visually impaired, “the biggest thing is accessibility and affordability,” says Wheatcroft. “How do we make visually impaired people more mobile? If these technologies exist, eventually they trickle down to people, and everybody uses them.”

The New York Marathon represents an edge case, a stress test, an extreme. Wheatcroft believes that by finding a way to navigate the route amid thousands of runners, he can help test technology that could assist the quarter of a billion people around the worldtoday who are blind or suffer from vision impairment. Many of the visually impaired don’t have a job — 70–80 percent in the US are unemployed — and suffer varying degrees of mobility and navigational challenges.

“It upsets me that so many blind people don’t work, and a lot of that is due to mobility,” he says. “We should be at a point where we should be able to solve these things. I want to make better technology for the community as a whole.”

Photo by Abbie Trayler-Smith for The Verge

Walking through Doncaster with Wheatcroft, on the route where he takes his sons, Grayson and Franklin, to school, it’s difficult to tell he’s visually impaired. Even when he’s out walking with his guide dog, Ascot, Wheatcroft’s mental map of the surrounding roadways is so acute that he often gives precise directions to people too dependent on their smartphones to find their way without one.

“People would see me running and ask what I was doing, and eventually, I’d end up telling them where to go,” he says. “‘To your left, there’s a building, about 0.9 miles down the road, then you can turn right.’”

Wheatcroft often looks people in the eye when he talks, a force of habit from when he could see. He started losing his vision at 17 due to a degenerative eye disease called retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic condition that also blinded his uncle. (Only 1 percent of Americans who are blind are blind from birth.) At this point, Wheatcroft can only vaguely make out changes in light, or what he calls the “fog of dull color.” (He could tell when I stood in front of him and blocked the afternoon sun.)

“When I was young, I thought, ‘Oh, this’ll never really happen,’” he says of going fully blind. “I was always a little bit concerned about the things that I’d miss out on, like I wouldn’t be able to see my kids. That used to plague me. But at the same time, I thought medical science might solve the problem.”

Photo by Abbie Trayler-Smith for The Verge

Wheatcroft grew up near Doncaster and dreamed of being a fighter jet pilot, but his diagnosis ended that dream. During high school, he rarely talked about his situation. After graduating, he went to college in Sheffield, where he received an undergraduate degree in psychology. He milled around a bit, and eventually worked at a friend’s video game store for a few years before finding a job in IT. At 26, his vision rapidly deteriorated. The shift initially devastated him; he says his situation became “depressing as hell.” Without work, he felt like he had lost purpose. Over time, Wheatcroft found ways to acclimate to his condition — he recalls memorizing the route between local pubs — all part of what he says was a constant adjustment.

But during a three-week vacation traveling across the United States in 2009, Wheatcroft was reminded of his limits. He had planned to propose to his girlfriend Sian at the summit of Half Dome in Yosemite, California, a romantic vista accessible via an arduous hike. But Wheatcroft had trouble navigating the ascent, and as they crossed the tree line, Wheatcroft, with a ring in his pocket, became exhausted. The loose ground and steep incline were proving difficult. Light rain started falling, making the route even more treacherous. Sian asked him to stop and rest, and when he sat down at the halfway point, he realized he had to turn back. In the end, Wheatcroft proposed to Sian at the base of the mountain during a snack break. A few weeks later, still crisscrossing the US, they wed in Las Vegas.

Wheatcroft came back to the UK struggling with what had happened in Yosemite. He decided to take a “voluntary redundancy” and quit working. His failure to propose at the summit ate at him for weeks, then months. What if he kept giving up on his aspirations because he was blind?

It was then time that Wheatcroft picked up a book given to him by an old university teacher: Ultramarathon Man by Dean Karnazes, a famed ultramarathon runner. Wheatcroft, who wasn’t very involved in sports as a teenager, thought that if Karnazes could endure long distances, and find significance and self-confidence in running, maybe he could, too. The idea marinated in his head for a few months. Maybe running could be his way to overcome obstacles, like the one that had forced him down the mountain.

Photo by Abbie Trayler-Smith for The Verge

In 2010, Wheatcroft started practicing in what he thought was a safe space: a soccer field in the back of an elementary school in Doncaster. He had done some weight lifting and CrossFit in high school and into his 20s, but this was different. Wheatcroft barely had the money to afford serious training: he ate candy bars from the corner store as a cheap source of calories, and wrote to Brooks running shoes, explaining his cash-strapped situation, and got a free pair of shoes in the mail. Sprinting between posts in endless loops, he’d feel out the paint on the grass to help himself navigate, but it was far from foolproof. Occasionally he’d run into a dog walker, a post, or someone who just assumed he could see and swerve around them. Eventually he moved to the empty airport road and, after gaining confidence, ventured out onto surrounding streets and roadways.

“Had I not lived here, I don’t think I’d have even been able to start training,” he says. “Right location right time, more than anything.”

In 2011, inspired by Karnazes and feeling confident after six months of training, Wheatcroft attempted his first ultramarathon: a 100-mile race in the Cotswolds, a rural area of rolling hills in South-Central England. At mile 83, he was dragged off the race when he could no longer stand. But he didn’t stop running.

Photo by Abbie Trayler-Smith for The Verge
Photo by Abbie Trayler-Smith for The Verge

Over the next six years, he would go on to finish numerous marathons and ultramarathons: he ran the Boston Marathon in 2016 (which he finished in four hours and 45 minutes), the New York Marathon twice (in 2014, he finished in five hours and 14 minutes), and even ran the 220-mile route from New York to Boston over the course of nine days in 2014.

For most of these races, Wheatcroft ran with a guide, his friend Neil Bacon, who’s been running with him for four years. But increasingly, he’s been turning to technology to wean himself off of human guides. He attempted the Four Deserts Marathon in Namibia last May — a 155-mile-long, multi-day race through scorching, shade-free desert where temperatures climbed to 104 degrees Fahrenheit — using corrective navigation technology he helped develop with IBM engineers. The device used a series of audio cues to keep him on track; beeps would steer him and keep him within a virtual corridor mapped out by the program. They named the device “eAscot” after Wheatcroft’s dog.

Wheatcroft says the device functioned well as a proof of concept for corrective navigation, but it was a rush job and had too many functional constraints. The navigational corridor wasn’t tight enough, and the device assumed that the desert would be free of obstacles. On day two, Wheatcroft ran without Bacon trailing him; he hit an unmapped flagpole 10 miles in.

Competitive running is a notoriously injury-prone pastime, even for those with full sight. Long-distance runners face twisted ankles, runner’s knee, and shin splints. Wheatcroft says the most significant issues he and other blind runners face is drifting from their paths. He’s clipped countless lampposts and traffic lights during training, and tripped over ditches, piles of dirt, and even garbage left on the road. A few years ago, Wheatcroft was running down a roadway near his home when he unknowingly came upon a battered car, abandoned on the shoulder the day before. Wheatcroft hit the damaged vehicle running at full speed, cutting his shins. Disoriented, he tried to right himself and in the process cut his arms. He got up, dazed, covered in what he thought was sweat. When he realized it was blood, he panicked, unable to see himself, identify his injuries, or find landmarks that could help someone locate him. He located his phone amid the wreckage and called his wife, frantically telling her to come find him. Luckily, she was able to locate him by driving up and down his normal route.

“If I’d have smashed my phone,” Wheatcroft says, “I would have been fucked.”

Photo by Abbie Trayler-Smith for The Verge

Wheatcroft’s running career coincided with an advance that made his life as a blind person better: the 2009 release of Apple’s iPhone 3GS, the first smartphone with a built-in screen reader, VoiceOver.

“It was night and day,” he says. “It wasn’t just about training. Now I could read newspapers. I could cue up a song on Spotify. I can do it now, thanks to that phone.”

More important for Wheatcroft is the issue of mobility. Despite a massive market, one that’s forecast to grow as baby boomers age, there has been no truly affordable or readily attainable breakthrough navigation technology for the visually impaired. Meanwhile, the established everyday aids are imperfect: canes require environmental cues to work, and can’t provide directions to the store; guide dogs can master an area or a series of tasks, but can’t immediately learn a new neighborhood, or help navigate through an unfamiliar city.

“The basic skills we need to navigate aren’t the challenge,” says Karl Bélanger, a technology expert at the National Federation for the Blind. Canes and guide dogs work, he says, for general, day-to-day navigation. But it’s important to have supplements to basic mobility, especially in specialized circumstances.

Some new technologies have offered steps forward: Google Glass, in conjunction with a subscription service called Aira, can “see” for the blind. Aira give the visually impaired immediate access to a remote, sighted assistant who can tell them what’s in their field of vision. (Erich Manser used Aira to run the Boston Marathon earlier this year.) It’s incredible technology, but it’s also expensive — the unlimited plan for Aira costs $329 a month — which may explain why Aira has less than a thousand subscribers. Other programs and devices, such as Microsoft’s Seeing Eye, tap phone cameras and visual recognition software to help navigate certain scenarios, but they don’t offer wider navigation cues. Not to mention, with constant need for power and a Wi-Fi connection, they’re limiting.

“That’s why the dog and cane still reign supreme,” says Wheatcroft. “The only input a dog needs is food.”

The first technology Wheatcroft experimented with was a relatively basic app called Runkeeper, which simply told him how far he had gone with regular audio reminders. Those reminders helped jog his memory and maintain focus, as well as create detailed mental maps of his surroundings.

Photo by Abbie Trayler-Smith for The Verge

“It was just a data point, but that data point was like a comfort blanket,” he says. “That voice helped tell me what to do, and that almost becomes your internal voice. If I didn’t have that technology, I wouldn’t have had the extra confidence to go out.”

Now, Wheatcroft trains with Runkeeper and uses a treadmill at home; it’s a Nordic model that’s hooked up to a program called iFit to run preprogramed routes, practice pacing, and get used to inclines and markers on his upcoming routes.

During races and long runs, Wheatcroft, like many other blind runners, relies on a much more low-tech way of getting around: human guides. Professional blind runners rely on volunteers and practice partners who are literally tethered to them by ropes in order to help them avoid hitting anything or anyone on the course. It’s both a liberating, and limiting, factor.

“When you ask people why they run, it’s normally about freedom and independence, to go out and push yourself,” Wheatcroft says. “But you can only push yourself as much as the person you’re connected to.”

New Yorker Charles-Edouard Catherine, also a blind runner, is a member of Achilles International, an organization that helps pair volunteers and athletes with a variety of disabilities, including vision impairment, autism, and amputations. With chapters in more than 60 countries, the group fields a large team at marathons and other running events; at the New York Marathon, the group can field over 300 athletes with nearly 700 accompanying guides. (Many racers have multiple guide runners.) Catherine, who also has retinitis pigmentosa, says his first time running with Achilles in 2012 was life-changing.

“When you become blind, you get in a phase of denial where you do not want to accept the new condition you’re in, the new requirements that it implies. You don’t like to ask for help. I didn’t know what to do,” he says. “It was awkward. But I paired up with people depending on speed and level, and right away, it felt like a new community.”

Catherine started running regularly with Achilles, and he quickly realized the advantages and limits of running with a guide. He felt camaraderie with fellow runners, who would share the experience of a long race with him, and having someone with him to warn other runners and pedestrians to get out of the way felt like having a presidential escort. But the more Catherine trained, the more dependent he felt.

“I always need someone,” he says. “And that’s limiting. In New York in February, if it’s snowing and frozen, and you want to do hill repeats, you’re not going to find lots of volunteers.”

Photo by Andrew White for The Verge

Most of the technology Wheatcroft has used to date relies on audio cues. But audio is a constricting form of communication. Imagine a Siri or Alexa-like interface describing every single object in your field of vision. Consider the cognitive overload that it would create on an already loud street crowded with obstacles.

“When I’m walking down the street to my house, hearing that there’s a bush or a lamppost doesn’t really help me,” Wheatcroft says. “Just help me avoid it.”

That’s why Wheatcroft has become increasingly focused on the sense of touch. Haptic technology, Wheatcroft believes, can steer a visually impaired person without overloading their senses. A haptic device could be called up by a voice command to access existing GPS data for directions, then “steer” someone via gentle taps on their skin. (The system could be combined with additional sensor systems, or even a service animal or cane, to help avoid obstacles, grade changes, and immediate impediments.)

Earlier this year, Wheatcroft went searching for a company working on a haptic solution. That’s how he came across WearWorks.

Co-founded by a trio of graduate students at New York’s Pratt Institute, WearWorks traces its origins, at least in part, to visions of a kung fu suit and an “iTunes for movement.”

Keith Kirkland, a dreadlocked designer and engineer born in Camden, New Jersey, knew his way around clothing. A graduate of the Fashion Institute and Technology, a freelancer for Calvin Klein, and a one-time handbag engineer for Coach (“every bag has to be stress-tested to hold 150 pounds,” he says), Kirkland was inspired to explore haptic design while working on 3D modeling. An ex-girlfriend saw him hunched over a computer from across the room, noticed his poor posture, then walked over and shifted his shoulders.

“What if you could read my body posture and compare it to what’s right, all without being there?” he remembers thinking at the time. “What does it look like to have movement fully digitized?”

He spent months trying to fashion a crude prototype, which was the foundation for his thesis at Pratt. Imagine Neo uploading his martial arts mastery into The Matrix as a file. The end result was a crude punching meter, a sleeve that would measure the strength of a strike. The project fell apart due to the difficulty of connecting wires and motors to the elastic sleeve, but it got Kirkland thinking about haptics and feedback: how can we communicate movement instruction via touch?

Kirkland partnered with two classmates, Yangyang Wang, and Kevin Yoo, a sculptor and painter turned industrial designer who had worked with Wang for a 2015 competition called America’s Greatest Makers for Intel. The million-dollar contest, focused on wearable technology, was a perfect place to pool their design skills to work on designing a better haptic interface.

The team’s original idea was to create a general market notification device, but then Yoo remembered the story of Marcus Engel, a famous blind author and consultant, who Yoo once heard speak. (Engel would later become a friend and adviser for the group.) The team began discussing how they could create a device that could help the visually impaired navigate, “offloading” the communication of directions from verbal to tactile.

WearWorks’ early Wayband prototype didn’t win at the Intel competition, but a few weeks later, it did help them become fellows at the Next Top Makers incubator, an event sponsored by the New York Business Development Corporation. The recognition helped the team take the device to SXSW last year, and landed them a spot in the Urban-X incubator in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood, where they recently finished a year-long residency. That’s where Wheatcroft came upon the group, and began working with them to develop and refine the technology.

“What they’ve understood is that it’s not about the maps. It’s about how you communicate with a person,” says Wheatcroft. “With verbal systems, you need to lose one of your senses for directions; hearing becomes dedicated to navigation. By using touch, which isn’t often used, you still leave audio free.”

Photo by Andrew White for The Verge
Photo by Andrew White for The Verge
Photo by Andrew White for The Verge
Photo by Andrew White for The Verge

The system developed by WearkWorks that utilizes GPS to create a map and route

The core technology behind the Wayband is relatively simple: users pair the Wayband with their phone, and it utilizes GPS to create and map a route. The path is surrounded by virtual “fencing,” and any time a user steps in the wrong direction, or approaches a mapped object or obstacle, the band buzzes in a sort of Morse code. (Four quick taps on the bracelet signal a turn left, for example, while two long taps signal a right turn.) It’s corrective navigation. Testing out an early version of the device at the Urban-X accelerator earlier this summer, I found myself slowly spinning in circles, eventually righting myself after getting the hang of the haptic cues. Kirkland compares it to creating an alphabet and vocabulary from scratch.

“Keep it functional and simple,” says Yoo. “We actually went to the National Federation for the Blind, and they told us high-tech canes and proximity sensors are great, but what really would help us is wayfinding.”

Instead of reinventing navigation, or relying on new computer models, the device simply creates a more easy-to-understand, universal system of directions, which connects to a GPS mapping system. The team is quick to note this doesn’t entirely solve the problem of navigation; though the Wayband can steer a blind person to the Post Office, it can’t help them avoid a pothole or cross a street. For that, Wheatcroft will be partnering the Wayband with an ultrasonic device the team devised to help with micro-scale navigation. Called the Tortoise, the green plastic device, roughly measuring two inches square and strapped to Wheatcroft’s chest, broadcasts and receives ultrasonic vibrations. (The antennae looks like the small bump of a camera on a smartphone.) The Tortoise’s constant, low-level vibration will speed up when the reflected waves indicate another runner or object is close.

Catherine, who became one of a number of blind consultants for the WearWorks team after they reached out to him, loves the concept behind the technology.

“You have this bittersweet feeling. Why haven’t we figured this out five years ago?” he says. “I think this technology has been there for a long time.”

Throughout the last year, WearWorks and Wheatcroft have refined the technology. He tested an early prototype in April, and it was impressive enough that he was almost ready to use it for the actual race. During a visit to New York City in September, Wheatcroft briefly ran around Central Park with the updated device.

Wheatcroft loves the Wayband system because it’s what he calls a “safe sandbox.” Instead of running within a wide digital corridor between 10–50 meters wide (the system he developed with IBM), WearWorks’ Wayband works within a 2.5-meter corridor, which offers more accuracy and safety, especially in a race environment.

For the marathon, he’ll wear a larger armband-sized version of the device in addition to the Tortoise. Neil Bacon, Wheatcroft’s longtime guide runner, will be at the race as a precaution, but won’t be helping Wheatcroft along on this record-breaking attempt.

“My main concern is running into somebody,” Wheatcroft says. “If this is their first marathon, and they’ve been training for years, I don’t want to be the bloody idiot who runs into them and takes them out.”

After the race, WearWorks plans to begin selling early versions of the Wayband, including an armband-sized version for athletes, similar to what Wheatcroft will be wearing, starting at $300.

Catherine says the potential independence this device promises would be like going from a child to an adult, a graduation. It would be a different race. But he knows exactly what he’d like to do first.

“I would really love to guide someone else,” he says. “I would like to be on the other side.”

WearWorks co-founder Kevin Yoo adjusting the equipment prior to the race
 Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Wheatcroft’s bet on a haptic, rather than audio, navigation system was a smart one: the New York Marathon engulfs runners in noise.

Started in 1970 as a race that took place entirely within Central Park and had roughly 100 spectators, the New York City Marathon has become the largest and most important race of its kind. Last year, a record-setting 51,394 runners, representing every state in the US and 124 countries completed a course that winds through each of New York City’s five boroughs. More than a million cheering and screaming fans, along with bands, DJs, and announcers, line the 26.2-mile course.

This year’s race took place on Sunday, November 5th. At 7AM, runners started to gather in corrals on Staten Island. They were itchy with nervous energy, ready to shed blankets and jackets, and — after long mornings of commuting on boats, buses, and trains to the edge of Staten Island — eager to just run.

Wheatcroft’s day started at 5AM with coffee, oatmeal, and so many press calls to UK media that he didn’t even have time to talk to his family. By 9:15, he was at the starting line, part of group of athletes with disabilities that include other blind runners (and guides from Achilles International) as well as those using handcycles.

The 24 hours before the marathon were full of last-minute preparations. Wheatcroft and the WearWorks team ran final trials in Central Park on the eve of the race, and discovered that the ultrasonic sensor wasn’t sensing objects in Wheatcroft’s vicinity. That night, the WearWorks team huddled at a Thai restaurant in Manhattan to hack together a solution, and Yoo fabricated a new module overnight. Yoo, who was going to run with Wheatcroft to observe the Wayband and Tortoise in action, made last-minute adjustments to the devices.

Press swarmed over Wheatcroft with questions and photographers snapped photos. New York Times reporter Jeré Longman was there, and would shadow Wheatcroft for the first few miles. Runners in front of Wheatcroft started asking members of the entourage if they should know who he was.

Minutes before the start, a stoic Wheatcroft, more serious and slightly more rigid than he was back in England, slipped out of his black tracksuit. At 9:57, as a slight drizzle fell on the crowd, the start gun was fired and the pack of hundreds began to move. Wheatcroft hung at the rear, and was one of the last of his group to begin crossing the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.

Wheatcroft was running as the forward point in an invisible triangle. Though he was navigating independently, his guide runners, who previously guided him at the Boston Marathon last year, ran 10 feet behind. As Wheatcroft cleared the bridge with a smooth, steady gait, Bacon and Croak hung back, giving him a wide lead. A water station appeared in Wheatcroft’s path and both guides bit their tongues to avoid tipping him off. This was the Tortoise’s first test. Wheatcroft felt the device vibrate faster, so he slowed down and weaved around the obstacle.

“Then it became a totally different race,” says Bacon. “I’d never seen him dodge things like that on his own. The hard thing was standing back and letting him go. ”

From there, Wheatcroft continued through Brooklyn and Queens, picking up the pace, enjoying the freedom provided by the twin devices. Bacon and Croak, accustomed to chatting with Wheatcroft, hung back. They watched him avoid large groups of runners, the Tortoise functioning like it was meant to.

“At the beginning, it was like, ‘Oh my god, we’re doing it,’” says Wheatcroft. “It was exactly how I imagined we’d avoid people in the crowd. I was running faster because I was enjoying it working.”

But the team didn’t count on rain. Around mile 15, the functionality of the Tortoise, which had been steadily deteriorating as rainfall picked up, stopped working. At the same time, the Wayband was having difficulty picking up signals. The sheer volume of data and cellular traffic along the route didn’t help, says Yoo.

Photographs by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

“We had every single problem possible,” Yoo would later say, during a post-race stretch near the finish. “There was lots of high-rises causing signal issues, issues with navigation while crossing bridges. We did the hardest thing we could do: testing the Wayband during the marathon.”

As the navigation aids faltered, Wheatcroft found himself working more, forced to concentrate harder to move ahead. Combined with his early surge, he began to feel drained. By the time they crossed the East River and headed through Manhattan, Bacon, Croak, and Yoo assumed typical guide duties. As the group passed through Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Wheatcroft and his guides ran side by side.

Wheatcroft crossed the finish line at 3:15PM, five hours and 17 minutes after the start, with Yoo and Bacon flanking him. Over the last leg of the marathon, he demonstrated the same steady gait he had at the start, but it was clear he was spent. Huddled under two blankets and clutching a cup of sugary, milky tea in the finish area, he said the sheer amount of mental energy required to navigate with the system added to the physical exhaustion of the race. He expelled too much energy at the beginning, and didn’t anticipate the energy needed to navigate.

After Wheatcroft crossed the finish line, he put his arm around Bacon and flashed a grin. He appeared excited and relieved to have met the physical challenges of the race. But the unproven technology, which showed promise under the harshest of conditions, ultimately didn’t last the entire marathon, and Wheatcroft was unable to finish unaided.

I asked Bacon what he thought of the entire thing: he felt it was a great success. Exhausted, Wheatcroft couldn’t muster up a response:“Right now, I really don’t know. I’m too tired to think,” Wheatcroft said.

Photo by Abbie Traylor-Smith for The Verge
 Photo by Abbie Trayler-Smith for The Verge

In the hours after the race, Yoo cataloged improvements for next time: the software algorithm needs to sort out data discrepancies better, the hardware needs to stand up to more duress, and they need a better GPS system. WearWorks clearly doesn’t have the budget to launch a fleet of satellites, but Yoo believes a mass-market GPS chip coming to the smartphone market next year will allow accuracy to within roughly a foot, and significantly improve the performance of their system.

Despite being exhausted, Wheatcroft lit up a little when asked about the future of the Wayband after the marathon.

“We took something we always knew was going to be an intense test,” he says. “We tested so many worst-case scenarios. Let’s take the lessons learned, and see how we can improve it.”

Wheatcroft is already looking toward the future, and even more strenuous challenges. Already an advocate and an occasional speaker, next, he’d like pursue triathlons. In addition, he’s consulted with tech companies about inclusivity and designing for the visually impaired, and he’s continuing his studies, including computer coding. (He’s currently working at home with a braille reader, and pursuing a master’s in computer science.) Wheatcroft wants to be more than a runner; eventually, he doesn’t just want to test the technology, he wants to help develop and build it.

“As a blind person, you always strive for independence,” says Wheatcroft. “But it’s a bit of a contradiction, because oftentimes, you’re using somebody with sight to become independent. What we’re trying to do is use this technology to really achieve true independence. This race isn’t about time, it’s proving that something is possible.”

 

 

 

 

Racked

January 2017

 

The Abercrombie & Fitch headquarters is composed of roughly 16 buildings set among 500 forested acres, which, during a late October visit, explode in fall colors. Security guards at the gate sport crisp blue button-downs from the brand. Banks of scooters let the 2,600 employees zip between meetings held in a series of massive, corrugated metal structures that look a bit like high-fashion barns. The grounds are filled with meandering paths, tree-lined walkways, and even firepits. The entire campus exudes wholesomeness, like a corporate wellness retreat that lasts all year.

“It’s a really lovely place to work,” says Clare Drummond, Abercrombie’s senior global PR manager, as she leads me past the company cafeteria, currently offering quinoa bowls and fresh juice. “We have a big roaring fire every morning, which is very lovely to come into at 7 a.m. There’s a really nice, communal feeling to the buildings.”

The facility has been a hive of activity the last few months, as the company revamped its catalog for the holidays, part of a larger brand refresh. Nearly every aspect of the business happens here, from designing the lines to storing inventory in gigantic warehouses. In one basement, photographers are shooting product images for the website. In another section, designers play with denim, using a bank of washing machines filled with rocks and pebbles in a quest to achieve the perfect fade. In another building, a full-sized mock store is being adjusted, altered, and tested to determine the right way to merchandise the latest collection.

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Curbed

October 2016

BURLINGTON

map of burlington

The northwest face of a Flatiron-shaped brick building in Burlington’s Old North End neighborhood is graced with an image of Muhammad Ali, gloves up, a symbolic bee and butterfly orbiting around his head. The memorial to the boxer, painted the day after he died, was partially inspired by the experience of Prince Nartey Awhaitey, the 28-year-old son of the Mawuhi African Market’s owner, Pat Bannerman, an immigrant from Ghana.

As a child, Awhaitey just happened to have Ali as a seatmate on a domestic flight from Tennessee to New York; he remembers the icon entertaining him, performing magic tricks with a knowing wink the entire flight.

The mural was just the beginning of the makeover for the building, part of the motley crowd of colorful Victorians, single-family homes, and siding-clad storefronts that line this working-class street, the occasional cornice offering a hint of turn-of-the-century charm.

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Curbed

October 2016

map of key_west

Pay a visit to Petronia Street in Key West, Florida, on a summer day, and density quickly becomes apparent. The humid air, a palpable weight, begins dragging you down by mid-morning.

History starts making itself visible. The eastern edge of Petronia almost backs up to the island’s above-ground cemetery, which holds generations of soldiers, settlers, and everyone in between—an everlasting last call in a city that self-identifies as the Conch Republic.

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Curbed

October 17, 2016

solarroadways

It’s been called the Mother Road and the Main Street of America, but soon, Route 66 will become the testing ground for an experiment that developers hope may change our roadways. After some delays, Solar Roadways’ hexagonal glass panels will be laid over a sidewalk near a rest stop in Conway, Missouri, once a waystation for motorists on the famous highway that helped bring Americans west.

This small test, according to staff at the Missouri Department of Transportation, will start by early December and be the first public trial of the Solar Roadways technology by a U.S. Department of Transportation. A pilot public installation in Sandpoint, Idaho, just opened in October (and has its own webcam), and in Baltimore, which is scheduled to be conducted by the Abell Foundation in October. Two European agencies are also testing this type of futuristic technology, which begs the question: Are solar roads closer to reality than we think?

Solar Roadways, (better known as Solar “Freakin” Rodaways via their wildly popular fundraising video), the glass-covered solar panels that could turn roads into power plants, was developed by a husband-and-wife team Scott and Julie Brusaw in Idaho. They received a two-year, $750,000 Small Business Innovative Research contract by the U.S. DOT to conduct tests in 2011, and a few years later, they captured the public’s attention with an Indiegogo campaign that helped them raise more than $2.2 million through crowdfunding.

The concept seemed too good to be true. Beyond turning highways into green energy generators, the panels would also heat themselves, eliminating the need for salt and snow plows, and contain lights that could replace street signs of deliver warnings to motorists. Most importantly, the solar roads would pay for themselves.

The idea was met with a heavy dose of cynicism: They’re expensive, wildly inefficient compared to regular solar panels, and potentially unsafe. Why create an entirely new system of solar panels when rooftops around the world sit empty?

But Solar Roadways also saw widespread support, and now it’s about to get a real-world test in Missouri, as part of the state’s Road2Tomorrow initiative, which is piloting new technology for the highway of the future.

A rest station sidewalk is pretty far from the founder’s vision of smart, glass-covered highways snaking across the country, soaking up the sun and powering our green energy future. But it’s also a necessary part of the slow process of gaining the government approvals necessary to be placed on actual highways.

Along with a number of other current tests and pilot being conducted by European engineering firms and local governments, it suggests that while solar roadways still have a very long way to go, there’s been plenty of progress on the road to adoption. According to Laurel McKean, an engineer with the Missouri Department of Transportation running the test, these small incremental tests are the right way for these kind of eccentric ideas find mainstream acceptance.

“Testing something regardless of the naysayers—isn’t that how we’ve grown as a culture and society?” she says. “To give someone who has an extraordinary idea the ability to test it out—I thought I’d never get the chance to do something like this. It’s amazing to be part of the scientific process.”

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Curbed

October, 17 2016

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Potential changes to zoning rules meant to protect the city’s manufacturing could radically reshape Chicago

In a city where broad shoulders and a brawny industrial past are a civic cliche, there was always something magical about seeing sparks fly at Chicago’s A. Finkl & Sons Steel plant. In an industrial strip on the Chicago River, located in the near northwest side and sandwiched between two of the city’s hottest real estate markets, Lincoln Park and Bucktown, curious cyclists or drivers could roll down a rickety stretch of Cortland Street, bumping over embedded rail tracks and a paint-flecked bridge across the north branch of the Chicago River, and spy cylinders of red-hot, molten steel through the sliding doors of the century-old factory. Furtive glances at the Vulcan glow made more sense after passing the scrap heaps at Sims Metal Management next door; perhaps those husks of old cars or shredded pieces of aluminum fed the industrial beast.

When the manufacturing center was razed last year (Finkl had already moved to a newer facility on the city’s South Side), it seemed symbolic of a shift that had been going on for decades, part of the slow decline of the heavy industry that helped build the city’s economy in the 19th and 20th century. But talk to developers, investors, and city officials today about the 28-acre site, and it appears like a new era is just getting started.

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Curbed

December 2016

uber-cover

New companies see an opening in the city’s shifting rideshare market

Business travelers arriving at any major airport in the United States, regardless of the time of day, climate, or even city, will, almost on cue, do the exact same thing: They’ll open Uber or Lyft, looking for a ride before they walk out the door, sometimes even before they get off the plane. These two companies alone accounted for 52 percent of all ground transportation costs (including car rentals) during a three-month period this fall, according to a recent study by Certify, an expense management software tool. In this context, the experience of getting a ride at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in Austin, Texas, is odd.

 

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T Brand Studio Paid Post

May 2016

roots-main

“Roots” remains a touchstone for its portrayal of an African-American family over generations; decades later, the miniseries’ themes, and artistic influence, couldn’t be more relevant.

A poignant, painful and ultimately empowering family story, “Roots” was the rare cultural event that combined unthinkable reach — around half of the 220 million Americans alive in 1977 watched at least a part of “Roots” — with incredible intimacy.

Based on Alex Haley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, the show introduced viewers to Kunta Kinte, Kizzy and Chicken George. The series showed African-Americans an example of their own family backstory and, on a broader scale, presented America with a story central to its past.

Declared “the single most spectacular educational experience in race relations in America” by Vernon Jordan, former Urban League president, its powerful storytelling has made it a wellspring of cultural and artistic influence. With so much to say about identity and perspective, the multigenerational saga still inspires American art and society today.

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