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Friday, March 27, 2015



 By Heidi Johnson-Wright

Thirty-five years ago, I had both of my hips replaced. It was a couple months before my 16th birthday. While my friends were getting their drivers’ licenses, I got new hips.

It wasn't exactly a fun way to spend a summer, but my arthritis left me no choice. My hips had completely disintegrated. The bones were grinding against each other, sounding like my mom's 1968 Mustang when my sister first learned to drive stick shift. The pain that went with it stopped me dead in my tracks. Life was put on hold until my surgeon readied his bone saw -- along with other nasty implements -- and replaced what Mother Nature gave me with stainless steel and Teflon.

I don't know precisely what happened to my natural hip joints. But I'm guessing their fate and Jimmy Hoffa's were substantially similar. Ashes to ashes, and all that stuff.

I never got a chance to say goodbye to my hips. Not sure what I would have said, exactly. Perhaps "it's not you, it's me" or "let’s try again after I get my head together" or "don't let the door hit you where the Good Lord split you."

Because of my experience, I've always been curious how other folks deal with having parts of them torn asunder. Recently I stumbled upon an online article about Norwegian artist Alexander Selvik Wengshoel, who gave his own hip an interesting send-off.

A wheelchair user since childhood, Wengshoel had his hip replaced when he was 21. The performance artist wanted to take home the detached joint as a souvenir. He woke up after the procedure to find a vacuum plastic bag containing the hip, and a good-luck note from his surgeon attached to it.

But Wengshoel’s story doesn’t end there. He cooked the hip and dined on the meat, along with a side dish of potatoes au gratin and a glass of wine.

When I read this, I was stunned. The first thing that came to mind was "white or red?"

But then I saw Wengshoel's comment:

"It had this flavor of wild sheep, if you take a sheep that goes in the mountains and eats mushrooms."

That answered my question. Had to be a robust red. Perhaps Rocca Delle Macìe Riserva Chianti Classico 2008, from Tuscany, or Beronia Reserva 2008 from Rioja, Spain. Gotta love the way those aromas of succulent black fruit, earth, violets and spice complement meat.

Since I've already told you Wengshoel is a performance artist, you probably know what's next, and you would be right. He documented the entire cannibalistic feast in an exhibition that was featured at the Tromso Academy of Contemporary Art in Norway.

I was inclined to dismiss Wengshoel as a nut job, a kook driven mad by Scandinavian seasonal affect disorder.

But then he elaborated further.

"It had been so hard to have it in my body, and when I took it out, it turned into something else, something romantic. It was a natural process I felt I had to do to move on. I just work with my own body, that is my canvas.”

I sort of envy Wengshoel. At least he got the chance to emotionally work through such an experience.

As for me, I would like to have taken my hips home in a Big Lots bag, but I would have stopped short of ingesting them.

Perhaps I would have turned them into a flower vase.

To display rose hips in bone meal, of course.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015



The city of Miami’s recent proposal to rezone part of East Little Havana has caused great concern among citizens and preservationists.

City officials argue that the buildings in the area do not conform to the existing zoning, and that zoning changes are needed to encourage development more in tune with the existing character of the area. Activists are afraid more density will reduce affordability, displace existing residents and destroy its unique character and the remaining historic buildings.

To objectively analyze the proposed changes, we must answer two simple questions: 1.What makes Little Havana special? 2. Does the proposal support or detract from the character that makes the neighborhood unique? This rational approach to the upzoning should guarantee that land-use changes will truly improve East Little Havana and the city as a whole.

Little Havana is as historic as Miami gets. Located across the Miami River, adjacent to downtown and the city’s Financial District, its heritage dates back to the early 1900s. It has always been the heart of Miami’s immigration waves: first as “RiverSide“ and “RiverView” for southerners and Jewish migrants.

It became “Little Havana” when it served as the Ellis Island for the thousands of Cubans fleeing the Castro regime. The most recent immigration wave has been Central and South Americans drawn to it by its affordability and central location. Many of these recent immigrants inhabit iconic 1920s three-story apartment buildings such as the Woodward and the Belmont, which are excellent examples of early 20th-century development in Miami, as are the architecturally significant ’20s and ’30s bungalows.

East Little Havana’s Mediterranean and Art Deco buildings rival those in Miami Beach’s Historic District. Before any upzoning is enacted, we must catalog, protect and repair these buildings.
East Little Havana’s density has grown over time as additional homes were wedged into small lots, apartments subdivided and garages converted into new homes by people’s need to house more family members arriving each day. This has created high density without towering buildings.

The approximate 0.25-square-mile planned for upzoning is home to almost 12,000 people, making it one of the densest in the United States. The neighborhood’s population density is far higher than the existing zoning or the city’s 65-units-per-acre proposed upzoning. Density is in Little Havana’s DNA. It is supported by transit and in close proximity to jobs Downtown and in the Financial and Health Districts.

Little Havana’s small, affordable apartments must remain the norm, not the exception.
East Little Havana’s new zoning must preserve the neighborhood’s low-scale character. Little to no parking should be required to prevent out-of-scale development while preserving the pedestrian character of the neighborhood. The use of public transportation should be reinforced.

Many cities have successfully preserved authentic neighborhoods from super-block redevelopment by creating centralized parking garages while crafting zoning codes that discourage developers from building garages within their buildings. European cities have protected their iconic historic neighborhoods by limiting parking and selling spaces separately from apartments as a bonus amenity. New zoning regulations — that encourage affordable development and transportation solutions such as biking, walking and car sharing — can preserve character while encouraging re-investment in Little Havana.

This is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the country. Calle Ocho, one of the most visited streets in Florida, is experiencing a renaissance because of a few visionary developers who have preserved great buildings and retrofitted them with unique restaurants, shops and apartments.

Little Havana deserves visionary zoning that preserves its historic buildings, embraces new modes of transportation and provides affordable, low-scale, dense housing that enhances the character of the neighborhood. Miami city leaders must steer Little Havana’s rebirth by enacting new zoning that preserves the neighborhood’s scale and prevents the parking podium and tower, block-wide development that would destroy its character.

Juan Mullerat and Steve Wright are part of the collaborative team at PlusUrbia, an award-winning design firm in Coconut Grove.  WWW.PLUSURBIA.COM

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Monday, March 23, 2015



Friday, March 20, 2015



My wife and I knew architect Michael Graves in his later years, after he used a wheelchair for mobility.

We were proud to brainstorm with him about ideas to increase Inclusive Design in the built environment.

Posting this Miami Herald story, written with remarkably good person-first language, is our tribute to an aspect of his long life of learning, teaching and reinvention -- that enhanced our lives the most.

Spinal surgery at Miami Project stopped Michael Graves’ paralysis from advancing

Michael Graves had just returned from a business trip in Europe in 2003 when he woke up in his Princeton, New Jersey, home and couldn’t feel his legs.

A virus had attacked his spinal cord and it was moving up the column, affecting his arm movement, and if left unchecked, the brain of the celebrated architect, known locally for designing 1500 Ocean Dr.

Enter Dr. Barth Green, professor and chairman of the Department of Neurological Surgery at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and co-founder of the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, which specializes in treating people with spinal cord injuries. Graves, who died last week at age 80, would live a full life over the next 12 years despite his paralysis from the waist down — thanks to Green, Shake-A-Leg and his Miami friends.

Green went to see him at the behest of Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, the Miami architect who had studied under Graves at Princeton and who recruited him to teach part time at the University of Miami School of Architecture when she was the dean. She and Frank Martinez, an associate professor at UM’s architecture school and a former graduate student of Graves, flew up to see him when they learned their former professor and good friend had become paralyzed.

“He was languishing in a rehab home,” said Plater-Zyberk.

She called Green, who made a special trip to see him. “I was going up to New York and made a house call.”

Green persuaded Graves to come to Miami and to be treated at the Miami Project. He did, and Green operated on him almost immediately. The surgery took nearly 12 hours.

“The virus was ascending up his spinal cord. He was beginning to lose the ability to move his arms and hands,” Green said. “We released some of the adhesions and blockages so he regained the use of his hands and arms. The infection had risen up to his neck, threatening to go to his brain.”

While Green could not reverse the damage the virus had done to his lower spinal column — resulting in Graves’ paralysis from the waist down — he and his team of doctors at the Miami Project could keep the virus from doing any further damage.

Through his treatment with Green and his involvement with Shake-A-Leg, the sailing program in Coconut Grove that helps people with spinal cord injuries to sail and rebuild their lives, Graves lived a full life over the next 12 years. He continued to design buildings — his firm designed more than 400 buildings. He taught at UM. And he embarked on a new career, designing furniture, equipment, hospital rooms and even houses for injured returning veterans as part of the Wounded Warrior Project.

“He became a super-specialist in adaptive universal design, which means you can go into a house, an office building, a courthouse — and you can get where you want to go, no matter your challenges,” Green said. “He became a voice among architects for disabled consumers.”

He also became a prominent voice for the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, speaking at dinners in New York and raising funds and awareness through his partnership with Target.

He also returned to teaching part time at the University of Miami School of Architecture. He first joined UM after retiring from Princeton University, where he had taught for nearly 40 years, in 2001.
While he was recovering and being treated by Green, Graves started talking with Martinez about leading a studio program in Rome for UM students studying architecture there. Graves had won the Rome Prize in 1960 and studied at the American Academy in Rome for two years.

It took about a year to plan the project, with Martinez traveling to Rome several times to map out the city, figure out where Graves would live, how he would get around, the studio’s accessibility, etc.
In the end, they taught the class in Rome in 2013, 10 years after Graves’ paralysis. Graves, who was 77 at the time, was thrilled to have returned to Rome, a city that had a transformative effect on him after studying there for two years early in his career. It was his first time back since his paralysis.

“It really was quite an adventure,” Martinez said. “Delightful days, wonderful lunches and dinners and he loved taking me and the students to all his favorite places. He wanted us to see all the beautiful buildings and to see the studio where he had studied.”

They had such a fabulous time that they were making plans to teach another course there this fall. Martinez had just called Graves about a week before his death and told him the program had been approved.

Said Martinez: “When I told him we were a go for Rome, he said, ‘Terrific. We’re going to Rome.’”

Thursday, March 19, 2015


By Heidi Johnson-Wright

A Cleveland winter is a brutal thing. When the crocuses finally poke their heads out, the sun reappears and you no longer feel as if you’re living in a Bergman film, it’s time to celebrate. At my elementary school, we marked this time each year with Spring Festival, an evening of song and dance put on for the parents by the fourth and fifth graders. One morning as I washed my hands in the girls’ restroom, I could hear the fifth graders’ resplendent voices through the wall. They were in the gymnasium practicing songs from the Broadway musical, Godspell.

Miss D was our young, newly hired music teacher. She was warm, energetic and in tune with the interests of kids. She was the diametrical opposite of the old battle axe who had previously held the job and had made us sing such jammin’ tunes as The Happy Wanderer and Drill, Ye Tarriers, Drill. I was not sorry to see her put out to pasture.

It was part of Miss D’s job to select the music for the festival, teach it to us and direct the entire production. You wouldn’t normally expect music from a show about the life of Christ to be included in a production at a public school, but Godspell had a decidedly hippie bent to it. Somehow it all balanced out. Plus, there would be a wide array of music, including some Top 40 pop tunes. The choice song and dance numbers went to the fifth graders, the lesser material to us lowly fourth graders. Regardless of which grade you were in, rehearsals meant less time spent on regular classwork. Nobody had any arguments with that.

To be selected for one of the jazz dance numbers was the dream of nearly every fourth grade girl. I wanted to be a dancer so bad, I felt it in my bones. But it was my bones that betrayed me. I learned the steps and made my best effort at the try-outs, but I’m sure the pain showed on my face. And I was probably too big a risk to be selected. If I had a flare the night of the show, it would screw everything up. So no sequined and tasseled jumpsuit for me. I was assigned the job of usherette. I would greet parents at the gym door and hand out programs.

Every day with the arthritis was a struggle, but my spirits were lifted by the advent of spring. Plus, the upcoming show gave me something to think about, to focus on. I wouldn’t dance nor have a featured solo, yet I was excited at the prospect of performing for my parents. I was sure they would be impressed.

Then my dad won a trip to Europe, his prize for being named salesman of the year. He and my mom would fly to New York City and be honored at a dinner at the Italian Rifle Club by the corporate big wigs. They would stay one night at the Plaza Hotel, where rooms cost $80 a night! They’d fly to Germany and take a week-long boat cruise down the Rhine River. Naturally, this would take place the same week as the Spring Festival.

I was disappointed, but somewhat heartened when I found out that my mom’s parents would come to stay with me and my sister that week. My grandparents were quiet and easygoing. They never fought or had mood swings. They’d buy me whatever I wanted at the grocery store. I imagined a week of nothing but pizza, ice cream and Archway cookies.

I came home from school the day of the big event and had an early dinner. I changed into my fourth grade idea of an usherette’s uniform: a white blouse and navy blue pleated skirt. We had to return to school early, before the families arrived.

School buildings after hours always feel a bit creepy, but there was a happy vibe in the air that night. They corralled us in our classrooms while Miss D made last minute adjustments with the in-crowd: the dancers and featured singers. I sat at my desk while three boys groused about how the show made them miss that week’s episode of The Six Million Dollar Man. They proclaimed it a rip-off, but consoled themselves by attempting to peel coats of Elmer’s Glue, intact, from the palms of their hands.

Soon we were herded backstage to take our places. Because I was one of the shortest kids in class, I was put in the first row of the chorus. This meant I would have to kneel down and sit on my heels during almost the entire show. In rehearsals, I had struggled with the pain it caused, but never let it show, nor even contemplated being excused from sitting like that. Now as we took our places, just moments before curtain time, I felt a panic rising within me. Standing at the door passing our programs had made my legs stiffen up. For a couple seconds, I felt tears well up, angry that the arthritis might rob me of this special evening, as it had begun robbing me of so much already. But somehow on cue, I descended to my knees with the other front row shorties without hesitation.

Throughout that evening, we smiled and sang Wilkommen from Cabaret and Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah and the other numbers on key, all the while following Miss D’s direction to the letter. When we rose to form a chain encircling the gym for the closing number – the O-Jay’s Love Train – my legs ached liked crazy. But when I saw the smile on my grandmother’s face as she clapped to the beat, I forgot all about it.

The following year, we fifth graders got to sing Paper Lace’s The Night Chicago Died. It was totally boss, but I think my first Spring Festival will always be my favorite.