I can’t quite call in grungy, because that came about a decade later and on the other side of the country, but there is a certain spirit of place associated with New York City in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. I can’t quite call it punk either, because the majority of that movement had either died or was in the process of morphing. But all the 35mm photographs of Keith Haring on the subway, or David Byrne at CBGB’s, have a certain type of grittiness.
Coming out of the heroin riddled 1970’s and into the crack cocaine 1980’s, this transition between decades was fueled by a unique mixture of hope, neglect, paranoia, and anxiety. This strange combination sprouted multiple distinct music scenes. The Bronx saw the rise of turntable fueled mixes of soul and R&B, while those who had something to say, spoke over the sample, thus giving birth to hip hop. The Village, strung out and disillusioned after the eventual disassembly of the folk scene and punk scene, tightened up their acts, and injected their music with paranoia and anxiety, thus spawning New Wave – the cousin of Post-Punk. Finally, the rising Gordon Gekkos of midtown boogied down while turntables spun dance records seamlessly throughout the night at European infused Discotheques.
All this is to say, that there was an immense amount of nervous energy all throughout New York during the late 70’s early 80’s. Even though Jimmy Carter is typically remembered with less disdain than the two presidents on either side of him, “the world situation is desperate as usual” as Tom Robbins wrote in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. Despite the colossal controversy of the Vietnam War and the trust-shattering Pentagon Papers, the Cold War again was re-vitalized. All three of these scenes that I’ve briefly described are drenched in sweat and filled with movement, as Devo sings “Uncontrollable urge / I wanna tell you all about it / Got an uncontrollable urge / It makes me scream and shout it, that’s right!” and Grand Master Flash in the Bronx rhymes “Broken glass, everywhere. People pissin on the stairs you know they just don’t care.”
Now, in 2015, I am a delivery person in this very same Village, and little of this spirit remains. Now its mostly brunch and bar hopping. Instead of crack cocaine and post-punk, its more like mdma and electric dance music. But there are still some dirty, sweaty, basement venues in New York, they’ve just mostly moved to Brooklyn.
Places like Death By Audio keep that angry, youthful, but somehow still celebratory, energy alive. We just call it garage rock now. But even Death By Audio had a limited life span, and was bought out and shut down.
Here’s The Parquet Courts playing a show at Death By Audio. This type of aesthetic is very indebted to the “borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered eighties” (LCD Soundsystem, Losing My Edge).
Ten flights of stairs, at least twice a day, for a week, is a lot of stairs. Granted, there were some people who lost their entire homes due to the Hurricane Sandy, but I had the privilege of living in the NYU dorm on 23rd and 3rd ave during this historic storm. What I remember immediately from this storm and the ensuing blackout period was walking everywhere and being absolutely exhausted by the end of the day, so I guess in that respect, it was actually pretty similar to a regular New York day. In almost every other way however, Sandy and the Blackout was shocking and strange and unusual.
After a short amount of time, everything above 39th st had regained electricity, so my friends and I would make a morning excursion to midtown for food and supplies. Then back to the dorm and up ten flights of stairs. We spent most of our time reading, playing cards, and sleeping with each other. Probably the number one activity however, was smoking cigarettes.
We didn’t want to walk too far from the dorm during the night because we had all heard stories about people dressed as ConEd workers and electricians robbing people under the cover of darkness. When I say darkness, it is in a sense of the word that does not typically apply to New York. At ten oclock at night, the brightest thing around was either cab headlights or the sky. That’s it. Neither corner deli neon, nor people moving in residential windows, nor restaurants bustling, nor bar hoppers bar hopping, instead deciding to stay home and drink by candlelight. The massive buildings that are almost always so conspicuous receded into silhouette, almost becoming spectators themselves.
There’s one moment that will always stick with me. Right outside the post office that is on 24th and 3rd ave, my friend and I were smoking a cigarette, when a woman with a push cart turned the corner and started walking towards us. She seemed to be drunk as she was zigzaging her way up the middle of the street, rather than walking the regular New York efficient straight line to her destination. She passed my line of sight and I continued the conversation like nothing happened, until my friend said “oh god no.”
I turned around to find the lady had dropped her trousers and was squatting in the middle of the road. The most striking aspect of this was that there was a cab directly behind this woman, one of the few cabs in the area, and the only one on this street. The headlights shined right on her while she took a piss, right in the middle of the street, outlined in a strangely beautiful light. Her body was in silhouette and her piss was translucent.
I’m not sure what this happening means to me, but I can still picture the scene so vividly. The Blackout was some kind of hilarious nightmare that was simultaneously hilarious, scary, surreal, and vulgar.
It seems to me that a good way to approach post-modernism generally, but also in terms of the specific architecture lens for this post, is a focus on the word re-appropriation. Both the readings for today were pretty critical of the modernist movement in that ‘newness’ was seen as essentially beneficial just by virtue of being new. The J.B Jackson piece was especially critical of this type of modernist thinking. Some have already written in their blog posts that this fetish with newness erases and collapses the past’s influence on the present. And yet, there is something to be said for the desire to accept change and revolution inherent in the modernist drive.
The term re-appropriation seems to me as a good balance to this dilemma, and it is particularly relevant to the apartment I live in today. I live in a three bedroom pre-war apartment off the Montrose L stop in Brooklyn, right where Williamsburg and Bushwick meet. In this three bedroom family apartment, we have fit five ‘bedrooms’ comfortably.
The first thing we’ve reappropriated was the basement. Using curtains and other simple things we’ve split the basement into two rooms. One is a living room with a couch, aquarium (my urban agriculture roommate is growing vegetables using recycled water from the fish tank in a process called aquaponics), and a TV. The other side is where my roommate Sagar lives.
I was able to re-appropriate what used to be the kitchen pantry by drilling in a small closet rod. So now my mattress is right under my closet and the whole room is just a bit bigger than my queen size bed. I love living in my little shoebox.
One reason I like living in there is that I find I don’t waste time in my room like I used to in the dorms or at home in high school. I’m either sleeping, or not in my room. It forces me to be active. It also forces me to be organized (I wish I could say clean but I’m not sure that’s the best descriptor). Everything needs to be in its right place, otherwise I don’t have enough room to function.
Overall, I feel very non-bourgeois, as Tom Wolfe has described. Of course, I do live in Williamsburg so I’m not sure to what extent I actually am non-bourgeois, but our re-appropriation of a pre-war apartment has left me with a room so small, that I find I purchase a lot less and I’ve been giving away those random objects that I never use and take up space.
Time will tell if we’re actually living simply or, like Mrs. Panther, just talking about living simply, but for now we are all very happy to be able to employ a pre-war apartment with surprising ease and comfort. The only thing that is starting to bother us is the noise from the construction next door, as they demolish and build a brand new, high tech, apartment complex. I’m not sure which living situation would be considered more post-modern: the brand new post-modern architecture apartment complex, or the re-appropriated pre-war apartment. Or neither. I’m still not really sure what post-modern means.
The bare essentials of this particular vernacular location, the classroom, are pretty consistent no matter the location. The chair, the desk, the pen and pad, the student, and the teacher are really all that it takes to hold a class. The question then becomes, why is the achievement gap growing at the same rate as the wealth gap in the United States? The classroom is a very vernacular place, in that for most people (except for the homeschooled and those who drop out very early for whatever reason) conjuring a solid memory of classroom experience is an easy task. Whether we are students right now, teachers, guest speakers, parents, bus drivers, recruiters (military or otherwise), sociologists, architects, etc… we all have a vernacular understanding of the classroom. In fact, many towns, cities, and other population categories, depend on the location of the closest school. But the classroom is also historically a very anti-vernacular location.
Focusing briefly on the alternate meaning of the word vernacular — the common systems of language used by the local population — So many types of vernacular speech are not allowed, or ‘appropriate,’ for the classroom. Curse words are the immediate example of vernaculars that are not allowed in this highly regimented public vernacular space, but more profoundly, highly specialized types of vernaculars, like localized Ebonics, are typically discouraged and even prohibited from the Standard English vernacular classroom.
The idea here being that this vernacular space, the classroom, has a system of inclusion and exclusion, that is more theoretical than Jackson’s example of the door as the space of population control. In the case of the classroom, often times language is a form of population control, and is one of the points of tension surrounding this vernacular space with specific focus on the achievement gap.
Returning now to the question of the achievement gap, perhaps what we typically see as a society as vernacular space is actually highly (albeit subtly) exclusive. The students who are not proficient in standard English are often not welcome to express themselves and participate in discussion. For these students, post high school opportunities are incredibly limited. Which brings this post now to another vernacular American space that is intimately related the the construction and functioning of schools: the prison, or the jail.
While it is not necessarily an ‘everyday’ space, the prison is another staple ‘public’ space, integral to any populated town, city, or suburb. While it could constitute its own blog post, I want to focus on the similarities between the prison and the classroom, by drawing from Jeremy Bentham’s term “panopticon.” Bentham’s design of a location in which “a number of persons are meant to be kept under inspection” has spurred school structures and designs based on constant visual surveillance, thus reenforcing the role and the power of the “master” over his or her subjects. This power dynamic drastically effects the social, political, and psychological make up of the students who occupy this vernacular space (Bentham, Panopticon). I’m not trying to suggest that all classrooms are spaces of direct oppression, but I do argue that what seems to be a basic vernacular space that only relies on very simple elements (desk, chair, pen&pad, teacher, and student) has a depth of complexity that can play a crucial role in the socio-political texture of a society.
Until I could drive, Marin County seemed like an average dull suburb. Specifically, I grew up in the rolling hill area of Terra Linda (nicknamed Terrible Linda), which is particularly resonant with Kunstler’s “The Geography of Nowhere.” The houses and cars and streets are basically interchangeable. The closest attraction is a gigantic shopping mall, which is right next to the local public high school. My world felt so small up until I could start driving myself around.
Kunstler’s book starts with a rejection of the aesthetic of freeways and a car centric lifestyle, which I typically agree with. I love living in New York because I’m rarely in a car. But when I first got my license, I stopped seeing Marin County as another dull suburb like those described by Kunstler.
There are so many things to do in Marin, and most of the good ones are free (except the gas money spent getting there of course). Stinson beach, the Marin Headlands, Point Reyes, Muir Woods, Mill Valley, Sausalito piers, and Tamales Point (the location of my photo above) are just a few of the excursions into the natural beauty of the surrounding area. Unlike typical suburbs, each of these destinations has decidedly distinct characteristics and some of them have reached some type of celebrity status.
Particularly in literary history, Marin County has sheltered and inspired very famous authors, who were attracted to the seclusion and the beauty of the area. Kerouac immediately comes to mind, as many of his retreats and drinking binges, both fictionally and factually, took place in Mill Valley (he references this town as Mill City). Kerouac would retreat from the City Lights (also the name of a great bookstore he frequented) of San Francisco, into the damp but inviting redwood groves of Mill Valley. Marin County was also the birthplace of Tupac Shakor.
Philip K. Dick, one of the most influential and prolific Science Fiction authors lived and wrote out in Point Reyes, where the Pacific Ocean and the roaming elk would bear witness to his lucid acid trips and sparks of creation.
“Maybe I’ll go where I can see stars, he said to himself as the car gained velocity and altitude; it headed away from San Francisco, toward the uninhabited desolation to the north. To the place where no living thing would go. Not unless it felt that the end had come.”
― Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Marin County is definitely considered a suburb of San Francisco. However, perhaps Marin is more analogous to Brooklyn than one of the suburbs that Kunstler describes, in that it has its own rich history and bustling communities which are separate, but still connected to, “the city.” A major glaring distinction between Marin and Brooklyn however is that you need a car to go between Marin and “the city” whereas a bike, the train, or your own feet, can take you from Brooklyn to “the city.”
So even though Rick Deckard (the main character of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep) needs a car to escape SF, and the north is described as “uninhabited desolation,” it is still the place he escapes to, in order to see the stars and enjoy the natural beauty in spiritual solitude.
The summer after my sophomore year, I moved into my first off campus apartment, located off the ‘20th street loop’ in the north section of Stuyvesent Town. With two other roommates and only one bedroom, I opted for the living room ‘bedroom,’ which was separated from the television and dining area by a DIY curtain barrier. I’m glad I lived there, but I’m equally glad it was only for three months over the summer.
My roommates and I were only subleasing, so the actual residents just gave us their electronic residence cards. These e-cards are a key that unlocks the front door. The first time I swiped in, I half expected to enter my birthdate into a key pad and say hello to a public safety officer.
Even though there were no security guards at the front door, they’re sure to be found at all times of the day and night watching the grounds. Instead of Lewis Mumford’s assertion that Stuytown is “the architecture of the Police State” perhaps it is more apt to call it the architecture of the “Security Guard State,” complete with segway bound officer patrols and strategically located control rooms. Typically these officers spend their days telling kids to walk, rather than ride, their bikes and skateboards, as well as making sure the masters of pets clean up after their domesticated animals.
If it is not that, than the security guards are monitoring the use of the gigantic fountain, in which there is to be absolutely no playing or use. This gigantic fountain has absolutely functionality and my girlfriend and I were told to stop cooling our feet in its basin. To me this fountain was the green grass square in the projects that none of the residents wanted or used (briefly referenced in class on 02-13-15).
What Mumford describes as “the woodenness of the scheme” was very apparent for me, as I was not allowed to partake in some of my favorite outdoor activities. I couldn’t bike or skate anywhere and the only reasonably good place to play soccer was a gated astro turf mini-field but the only way to get in was if ‘accompanied’ by a kid below the age of eight.
There are multiple playgrounds and even a basketball court (which I doubt was built into the original plans) but these areas are all so strictly regimented by hours of operation and codes of conduct.
Stuytown has made some adjustments since Mumford’s original article, which states, “this community of twenty-four thouseand inhabitants will not have, within its walls, a school or a library, a church or a community room, a motion-picture theatre of an auditorium, a clinic, a lying-in home, or a hospital, or any of the other essential facilities for its population.” Now they have a library, a sports equipment center, and they even show movies in the main lawn during the summer evenings on a big drive in projector screen. But both the library and the sports equipment center do not come with the lease contract, instead they are additional costs.
Oh, and Stuytown also added a coffee shop which gets some foot traffic, so they’ve got that going for them, which is nice.
Taking my cue from Alan Lightman’s refreshing discourse about memory’s hold on our habits of navigating familiar places, I’d like to write about a time of re-discovering, or re-navigating, an already familiar place. Immediately following my sophomore year at NYU, I landed a job, moved out to Brooklyn (Greenpoint), and bought a bike. With all these changes to my routine, schedule, and transportation, I felt like I had just moved in to New York, despite having lived there for the previous two years.
The most powerful feeling of re-discovery that I felt was on the morning of my first opening shift at my new restaurant job. I had already biked over the Williamsburg Bridge, but this time it was sunrise. The bitterness and moisture of this dewy summer morning was balanced by the warmth of the direct sunlight dancing with the structure of the bridge, as well as the warmth of the reflection of sunlight off the buildings of Manhattan.
The J hustled by on my left and tugboats tugged underneath perpendicularly North South to my East West. The feeling of newness was tangible.
The city was waking up. For the first time, from the new perspective of my manual cycling transportation machine, I saw Brooklynites watching the sidewalk become the subway, and Manhattan workers buying coffee, while the same coats, worn by different Brooklynites, emerged from the Manhattan subway exits. But it didn’t feel like the same old scene that the monotony of student life had slowly become over my first two years of going to NYU.
New York smells different on a bike. It doesn’t smell so much like piss and trash, as cycles of fresh air replace stagnancy. It doesn’t sound the same either. What might be the oppression of sirens to a pedestrian becomes a poem to the biker, briefly but urgently speaking its verse under the title “Get the fuck outta the way.”
There’s also the thrill of discovering new paths and directions. I try my best to maintain momentum when I’m biking, which typically takes precedence over habitual routs. So if a light turns red, rather than continue straight, I take the right turn, skip to the left lane and take my next left. Or not.
Sometimes, time permitting, it’s equally as nice to stop at the red light and look around to find a sense of stillness. Like melting into a hotub in the middle of a snowstorm.
I have since had my bike stolen and resigned myself to subway shuffling, but the beauty of Lightman’s text, and my own experience rediscovering this city from a new perspective, is that this philosophy behind the ‘habit of newness’ can be applied to every moment, no matter how mundane. Habits and routines, like the subway schlep, organize the scaffolding of modern rational life. Habits are the standard bearers for this 21st Century march of Progress. But here in lays the paradox that many of our readings directly and indirectly addressed: the only zen you find at the top of the mountain, is the zen that you bring with you.
Our habits might be as still and unchanging as the waves of a rock garden, but as on of the grandfathers of literary criticism as we know it today, Walter Pater, has written:
“To Burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.
In a sense it might even be said that our failure is to form habits: for, after all, habit is relative to a stereotyped world, and meantime it is only the roughness of the eye that makes any two persons, things, situations, seem alike.
While all melts under our feet, we may well grasp at any exquisite passion, or any contribution to knowledge that seems by a liften horizon to set the spirit free for a moment, or any stirring of the senses, strange dyes, strange colours, and curious odours, or work of the artist’s hands, or the face of one’s friend.
Not to discriminate every moment some passionate attitude in those about us, and in the very brilliancy of their gifts some tragic dividing of forces on their ways, is, on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening.”
As I took the exit ramp off the eastbound 580 toward my friend’s new house next to the UC Berkeley Campus, I realized I had recently left my iPhone in a cab northbound on the Hudson River Highway, and that I had no idea where I was going. For the first time since my iPhone 1 that I got freshmen year of high school, I didn’t have a smart phone. I had my friend’s address, but without a smart phone to find the meaning in the numbers and letters, and then feed me directions, I had no idea how to find his new house.
But this wasn’t my first time in Berkeley, so I decided to just head for campus and give him a call when I got presumably close. Immediately getting off the exit ramp, I took the wrong turn and went under the freeway and had to wait ten minutes while a freight train passed.
Despite this setback, I was resolved to not let my absent pocket direction maker get the best of me, so I used my prior knowledge and experience of Berkeley to re-imagine the path that would take me towards campus. Not that I really had to do this, seeing as I had already started by taking the College Ave. exit off the 580.
College Ave. came to a T intersection where it ended, but luckily for me, the intersecting road was labeled University Ave. Here I remembered to take a right so as to pass the big sign that says “University of California at Berkeley.”
Feeling pretty accomplished about finding the campus, I decided to just keep driving while giving my friend a call, which was not a good idea.
Pretty quickly, during the few rings on the other end of my ‘dumb’ phone, the scene and atmosphere changed around me. The frequency of traffic lights increased, the amount of pedestrians increased and their focus on the cars and traffic was less intense. The pedestrians on a college campus typically expect the drivers to watch out for their right of way in most to all traffic related cases, as is the case on many American college campuses.
While my friend was on the phone giving me directions, my street had seamlessly become a one-way road. My friend asked if I could see the big multi-purpose astro turf field. I said I’m passing it on my right and he said take the next left. Then, because he was unsure exactly what the next street was to turn on, he asked me to mention all the restaurants I could see. I came up to the red-light in the left lane of what I assumed to be a one-way street. I was looking across the street at Berkeley’s new ‘Artichoke Pizza’ and someone turned the corner in a green sedan, honking, and mouthing what I can only assume to be “what the hell are you doing on the wrong side of the road?” I ended up getting to my friend’s house eventually, but with much confusion.
Despite all this, I actually rather enjoy not having a smart phone anymore, especially when I’m in New York where I can walk or bike most places. Now I just make sure to get specific text directions or look up the address on the Internet before I leave.
I’m not exactly sure what constitutes as ‘public space’ in America today. The British, as early as the late 12th Century, started privatizing what might have been known as ‘public space’ (a process known as Enclosure). Therefore, it is arguable that the Western World, including New York, doesn’t really have ‘public space,’ for there are certainly no ejidos to be found in Manhattan.
That is one of the reasons why the subway platform never ceases to confound me. It’s incredibly social, and the American public makes use of it, but is it ‘public space?’
First of all, the social aspect functions a lot like William Whyte’s documentary in that two main principles of successful public space are somewhat covered. There’s pretty ample seating space, both on the platform and on the train itself. On particularly crowded platforms however, I don’t see why the whole platform is not covered in seating which could line the wall.
There’s also the enjoyment of looking at other people, which is a process filled with an immeasurable subtlety of gestures and eye-contact (or near eye-contact). As Whyte noted, the number one activity of people in a public space is watching other people. One time, on the 1 train going up to Cloyster’s Museum, I saw a large, intimidating, 6’3’’ man wearing sunglasses, who had huge claw-like toenails painted fire-truck red. Naturally I shared a good (but quiet) laugh with my friend on the train and we still talk about how unexpected that sight was.
Furthermore, people on or waiting for the train, especially like to talk about people (fictional and otherwise) who appear on advertisements. I recently overheard two mid to late 20’s women criticizing every aspect of a woman’s wardrobe on a fashion advertisement. It took up the whole trip from 14th Street Union Square to the Bedford stop.
Returning now to where I started, these ads are some of the clearest examples of a privatization of ‘public space.’ In this essay I wrote for a critical pedagogy class last semester, I assumed the point of view of a group of middle or high-school students waiting for the train to get to government mandated school (another social mini-cosmos in itself). For these students, morning and evenings are dominated by advertisements for things like: joining the army, prescription medications, and fitting into the ‘norm’ (thank you GAP) – not to mention the police ads “If you see something, say something” encouraging an Orwellian level of suspicion and paranoia.
Despite all this however, I like riding the train and waiting for it. I love to read and look around at the vast variety of life swirling around. I just consider it necessary to address the discrepancy between my understanding of ‘public space’ and the State’s understanding of ‘public space.’ After all, Manhattan was ‘bought’ from the Native Americans, and therefore it is (by rights of man and God) owned, possessed, and ruled over by the State.
Spending time in a skate-park can be an insightful way to learn about the place you are traveling. The skate-park, is a typically unmediated assembly of youth (or at least youthful spirit, for you older skaters reading this), in that there are rarely parents or teachers or other authority figures hanging around. If the boys and girls in blue do punctuate your local skate-park, that fact can equally reveal the characteristics of the larger place (town or city or county etc…). But a skate-park is so much more than just an unsupervised playground.
Architechture, fashion, attitude, police/authority presence, age, and language permeate even a quick glance of a skate-park, and I try to arrange a visit to a skatepark, even briefly, to better get to know the place I’m traveling. But I’m sure I have this tradition because I grew up spending so much time at my local skate-park.
The place really says a lot, and it changes constantly. First of all, the park is officially called “McInnis Skate-park,” but its nickname is “Disneyland” because it is outrageously large, and pretty flashy. The nickname also implies the negative aspects of “Disneyland” in that it is aesthetically pleasing, but not exactly ‘functional.’
‘Functional’ might be described by someone at the park as ‘the flow’ of the park. ‘The flow’ would be ridiculous to try to define (The Tao might be a good place to start), but my interpretation is that a park with good ‘flow’ allows the skater (or biker or rollerblader or scooterer) to continue momentum with very little effort. Something like the difference between gliding and flying.
“Disneyland” doesn’t have that flow. It has the attractions, without the elegance of simplicity.
Marin County, home of “McInnis Skate-park” also has its attractions, primarily the relentlessly breath-taking natural surrounding (Haley’s post is a great place to start). But in the larger and more populated parts of Marin, like my specific home, we lack a flow, and simplicity. Our A — > B, sprawled, automobile dependency often cuts back on room for spontaneity while we travel and traverse our ‘home’. Excesses of comfort, luxury, and decadence, pave over the humble enjoyment of simplicity every day.
That being said, McInnis was still a catalyst for my imagination, and will always sit in a part of my memory known as home. Any ledge, coping, incline, or flatgroung in, or around, a skate-park is skateable. The chiseling of incalculable possibility into the past tense is undertaken by the animated decision of what to skate, and how to skate it, and even when to skate it. The choices of an individual’s can speak of the chooser’s character, the way the skate-park’s build reveals the town’s ideology.
This is all a strange way of saying that I’ve learned a lot from the ever-changing skate-park community, and still do. Even now, one of my favorite places in that spot in my imagination I now call home (roughly signified as New York), is the skate-park on the West River, Pier 25.
Even if you’ve never skated in your life, the skate-park is worth a visit, and you’ll almost definitely be welcome because most skaters just want an audience anyway. It’s a great way to get introduced to the place you are visiting, or get re-introduced to a place you have been living. Or in my case, the skate-park is a place to reconnect with home and dream (see Gaston Bachelard – The Poetics of Space, chapter 1 ).