Tobias Frere-Jones wants to reveal a neighborhood that never got the name it deserves, and I want to help him do it. We want to commemorate New York City’s Typography District.
Frere-Jones, along with his former business partner Jonathan Hoefler, have literally carved the shape of many of the letters seen every day, creating some of the most popular typefaces on the planet. A three-letter specimen of their Gotham Bold can be found on every purple NYU flag, and their classy Archer Medium can be found in the lobby of every Wells Fargo.
Frere-Jones, like most of us typophiles, collects type specimens, the sales catalogs issued by old type foundries. He recently noticed a pattern in those which came out of New York City in the 19th century: they were all within a few blocks of each other. He had found a lost Typography District.
The foundry cluster started a few blocks above Federal Hall, around John Street, but the federal government doesn’t seem to have much of a use for their old sub-treasury anymore and I can’t personally think of a better use for it than my perfect placemaking plan.
The artist/architect Anish Kapoor, when he’s not building polished chrome beans, fills large rooms with giant bubbles, like a 6-year old with welding skills and infinite grant funding. I will enslave him, and we will construct a rotating display of enormous letterforms to fill Federal Hall’s center rotunda. Anish has shown a skill at placemaking through sculpture, simply from his ability to garner curiosity through strange forms, most famously forming the meetingplace known as the Chicago Bean.
History is often lost in placemaking, though, or assigned only to plaques: bronze memorials to the fervor with which people will not read them. But places like the High Line, with its preserved track switches and benches which roll on old train wheels, blend history with modern enjoyments. Little architectural jokes, like the paving of a walking path between railroad ties, remind visitors that the structure was not built for them, but has been adapted from something vastly different. Chicago’s People Spots comment on a shift from car culture to pedestrian dominance by placing human meeting spots directly where cars once parked. The Project for Public Spaces is developing for the Times Square Alliance a plan to convert Times Square from major intersection to major pedestrian plaza.
It is so often in the very nature of Placemaking to repurpose infrastructure, to bend a historical solution to modern needs. I want to make this tradition explicit, render it the centerpiece of a new place. I want to inspire curiosity and confusion about a bygone era in a bygone treasury remade for the present.
Anish’s letterforms, typically only a few picas tall and once cast in metal in the now-remembered Typography District, will stand fifty feet tall in the newly renamed Typography Hall, a place dedicated to the shape of our language. It is a museum, but one which can just simply by sitting on the floor and squinting upward.
Sometimes bewilderment is the best way to convince people to stick around.
I feel the uneven pressure of stares when I carry a moderately heavy grocery bag on the sidewalk in my suburban hometown. I was doing something wrong for the area, or at least inappropriate. I was in defiance of the suburban spirit, and it was trying to whisper to me.
In New York City I’ve carried Ikea furniture from Brooklyn to 10th Street without anybody caring.
It could be said, primarily because it is true, that driving is the social norm for suburban life, walking for urban. But this is too simple a dichotomy. I believe that, embedded within the spirit of each place, is a level of tolerance for the unexpected. Local culture determines what script people are expected to follow in the performance of daily life, that’s obvious. I’m saying there’s some regional variable which determines how much the locals care when things go ad libitum.
In New York City that value is very, very low. It is remarkable what New Yorkers will aggressively deem unremarkable; a commendable list of things which will not make a New Yorker aggressively not execute a double take. Silent men painted completely in silver, subterranean acrobatics on subterranean trains, Big Gay Ice Cream. To be, perform, or establish these things is by no means a behavioral norm enforced by New York cultural standards. No entity is mandating, encouraging, or provoking this improvisational displays of counter-culture, and I’ve already well established that the proud and overwhelming majority remains committed to a policy of devout apathy.
No, this is not a matter of interesting things coming forth due to societal pressure, it’s interesting things remaining in existence because virtually nobody is offended by the breach of normal behavior. The spirit of New York is to ignore everything equally. If New Yorkers want to make maintain eye contact with something and find it intriguing, it is going to be solicited, probably indoors, and with a paid ticket in hand.
Meanwhile, with its much higher Caring Index, my hometown of Suburbia, Pennsylvania will continue to enforce its cultural compliance policies. This is not only done via untreated and unspoken human contempt, but also through the very spirit of the place, in that same space between air particles where the scent of backyard grills and quiet reside.
I now commit cultural transgressions as a hobby when I’m back in my Pennsylvania hometown. I walk anywhere that feels within walking distance, whether the distance is paved by sidewalk or shoulder. I carry furniture whenever it feels right, and I exercise a newfound certain power over the palpable suburban disapproval of my standing out.
How? I aggressively ignore it. Something I learned from New York.
You start living in New York City when the fantastic becomes the quotidian. Daily chaos evolves into daily routine, and New York begins to do the thing E.B. White says it does so well: insulate you. I came here to be overwhelmed by the ability to walk to the flagship everything. To feel news before it could be told to me, because something big is always happening in some small corner of this city. But “New York is peculiarly constructed to absorb almost anything which comes along…without inflicting the event on its inhabitants.” You become an “inhabitant” when you switch poles so that Times Square repels you, when long lines do not mean something is worth waiting for, when the immensity of your home and the scale of everything which makes it run no longer scares you. The city builds its insulation around you, indefinite vacation becomes a definite home, and you are left to find excitement in your everyday tracings of the grid. I formed friends at intersections. Friendships with fellow New Yorkers not out of some shared interest or compatible personalities, but simply due to daily encounter.
Bebo ran a food cart on Broadway between Houston and Bleecker, between my SoHo dorm and the NYU campus. I assume he still runs it but the nature of making friends along your routine is they fade as quickly as a new home comes.
Before meeting Bebo, I had been walking much farther north before cutting over to broadway. But it was September, it was my first semester without a mealplan, and I was hunting for the perfect morning muffin worthy of making a routine out of. None of the shops, even the artisanal hipster-flavored ones, were fulfilling the need. To dry, too crumbly, and/or too expensive. One day, giving up, I began seeking consolation muffins at food carts. I accidentally found the best chocolate muffin I had ever had. It was called a yogurt muffin, it was perfectly soft, and it was two carts south of Bebo’s.
A few days later, the bank across the street sponsored free coffee all day at Bebo’s cart. I asked for my free coffee, and paid for a muffin along with it. It was disappointing and dry, more boring than the banker’s business card which had been handed to me along with my free coffee. But the coffee was very sweet so I came back the next day. I asked Bebo about his muffins, and eventually admitted that I liked the yogurt muffins better. The next morning, his cart was full of them, and a grinning Bebo. I started visiting Bebo’s cart every morning. I shifted my walking route so that I would always cut west to Broadway before hitting Houston, so I would always pass him. When I was short on cash, Bebo told me to pay the next day. He already had my order memorized (large coffee two sugars with vanilla sweetener and a chocolate chip muffin) and he was going to make it whether I could pay for it or not.
And for the trip home, there was Andy, the receptionist on weeknights at The Public Theater. I would usually make my return walk down Lafayette, passing the Public Theater daily, and daily I’d wonder what happened inside. Eventually I asked. It was a weeknight so I asked Andy, though I didn’t know him yet, and he gave me a tour of the place. Transcending mere theaters, the place offered a bar that would happily serve me ginger ale, a chandelier which parsed the text of Shakespeare in realtime looking for patterns, and the clear sense that I was welcome to stop by anytime, whether I had a ticket or not.
I began studying at The Public, or simply using it as a place to rest. I visited nearly every weeknight for two months before I finally saw a play, and I talked to Andy each time. We talked about design, my passion, and acting, his. About the history of the place and how Joseph Papp would have liked it this way, me using his building not as a place to buy tickets but a place to exist.
I liked Bebo and Andy because they posed no threat of attention. They couldn’t text me, email me, or contact me in any way but the overlapping of our daily lives, and yet they were always there when I needed them. Bebo for my morning coffee and one conversation which I knew would never lead to another thing which needed to get done, and Andy to talk through my day when it was over. New York insulated me. It gave me the gift of privacy and it forced upon me immunity to the excitement of the world. Then it gave me a family, built into my every day, which whom I could celebrate the everyday.
Places are made placeless by entertainment, by uniformity, by formlessness, by destruction, and by abandon. This is a story of abandon. And yet another blog post about a person breaking into Spreepark.
I’ve long had this suppressed desire to dare myself into some forgotten, forbidden space. I just could never justify the dare part. But I remember the night, one rainy overwhelming night last year, where I asked my understanding friend Catie on a walk. Somehow the conversation flowed into abandoned places and Catie told me about her adventures: the weed-coated bus filled entirely with cat food and the empty house whose neighbor supported curious trespassers. Out of a careful mix of jealousy and awe, I made it a goal that night to truly explore some forbidden or at least forgotten place. I made some big New York City plans and did some tiny New York City things like staying on the downtown 6 after the last stop and looping along with it through the abandoned City Hall station. But today I did the Big Thing. I went with Angie because she’s a person here with a very rare and very comfortable balance of danger and sense, but I wish it had been with Catie because she would help me make even more memories. It’s now 11:30am, and Angie and I just returned from Spreepark, the abaondoned East German amusement park.
Like some architectural history-inclined baby, I think the first complete and generally grammatically correct sentence out of my mouth in German class went something like “I came to Berlin because Bauhaus.” And it was the total and complete truth, so help me Walter Gropius. My German professor’s sad eyes and happy smile indicated that she was charmed with my affection for this part of her country, content with my in-class sentence formation, and concerned with my priorities in life. Yet a week later she invited me and a few design-inclined classmates to take a train and meet her in Dessau. We were going to Bauhaus.
In the ranking of places that I won’t stop smiling in, Disney World is probably down somewhere around four or five. Nowhere close to Bauhaus, and I’m proud of it. To the Germans (and Americans) who were nervously watching me, I essentially trotted about this museum and education center like one of those Disney dads who simply will not take off the Mickey ears. I appreciated the Honesty of Materials in every chair, and I will never trust a normal chair ever again because they are all lying to my face and to my butt. I stared, helplessly transfixed and enlightened, at light fixtures. I fell in love with the fire alarms, though I don’t think they were of the Bauhaus philosophy. I probably just loved them because, deep down, I knew they were keeping the precious building safe. And I definitely ate a Bauhaus Burger, which exists.
My reduction to perfectly geometric tears was maybe 35% due to the building’s architecture. The rest was my own design geekery. Really, the place feels like your middle school, only better preserved. It has that same funky smell and willingness to paint any wall any color. Though at least Bauhaus had a color theorist behind the operation: Johannes Itten. In fact he taught a whole wall-painting workshop in the building. You get a sense of the guy wherever two walls meet at an outward-facing corner in Bauhaus. The two walls are always painted just slightly different shades of the same color, so their junction is further highlighted. The sense I got was what we may today refer to as an approximately Very Boring Building, but with infinitely interesting details. The same material vocabulary as a cookie cutter industrial slab, except each component granted special attention.
If we were to be as honest as the materials in a Marcel Breuer chair, the people at Bauhaus probably spent more time cranking out manifestos than actual buildings, and Tom Wolfe generously provides a convenient summary of every art manifesto ever:
We have just removed the divinity of art and architecture from the hands of the official art establishment, and it now resides with us, inside our compound. We no longer depend on the patronage of the nobility, the merchant class, the state, or any other outside parties for our divine eminence. Henceforth, anyone who wishes to bathe in art’s divine glow must come here…
And that’s what I did. What gets lost in all the academic histories is that the students of Bauhaus had fun. They made things and they made jokes and music and they had a theater where they performed serious ballet in really weird costumes. These students’ own home, the Bauhaus building. was a test zone for the experiments they would try on new ones. Perhaps glass-box architecture was born when architects mistook the building for the final product rather than the canvas.
The most hated structure in all of New York is the scaffolding that just went up along your everymorning walk. You look up one last time because you know what’s going down: a painted plywood tunnel will be channeling you through this block for the next two to thirty months. An awning unwanted. Your sun will not be shade and your moonlight fluorescent, because this the price of progress, and you hate it.
Unless it’s raining. If it’s raining then scaffolding is alright. You’ll shake out your umbrella and you’ll huddle with a few strangers but it’s most certainly not out of any love, admiration, respect, or gratitude for the stupid thing. Because it is, indeed, still stupid. Scaffolding does not get a free pass for being ugly, annoying, and in your way just because, in one low and rainy night, it was the best community umbrella built by man.
Especially if its a very long strip of scaffolding. Maybe even the whole block. Or at least a network of scaffolding oases situated on alternating sides as if they could zipper up into a flight path for the unbuttoned explorer. The view from under these outdoor ceilings is fantastic now: a cockpit from when to map out puddles. There’s a new beauty to be found in usefulness.
It’s dry now, and you find yourself still clinging to your forest of metal pipes with the canopy of two-by-fours. You know that if you hug the outermost poles, nearest to the sidewalk, that you will often find a lane entirely your own. You know which beams to lean on to look cool and which beams to void.
You know to call 311 to report unsafe working conditions as you continue to walk under this set piece for the sidewalk ballet. Your ability to read this sign without thinking about why it’s there is impressive, but occasionally you do you remember that your scaffolding is a construction tool. Creating a second sidewalk above the one you’re one, a second sidewalk trafficked only by construction workers. You hope the work above is one of those nice construction projects to clean some old building but in the way that keeps the building old. You’re not sure how it works but you know it when you see it.
You’re also aware that above you could be a new building. It could be an ugly new building. But it matters little because you’ve structured your life around this scaffolding and you’re going to hold on to the life you’ve built up.
One day it is gone. You didn’t notice what was gone until you noticed where something felt new, until you realized there was an entirely new collection of facades to be admired, and a sidewalk barren and plain. The scaffolding has come down that you realize that it was only structure for structure. The most loved structure in all of New York was the scaffolding, once part of your every day, which is now gone. The set has been struck and the ballet must now accomodate.
In 2011, the underground heroes and/or soulless sellouts known as Arcade Fire released The Suburbs. Lead singer Win Butler told us the album was “neither a love letter to, nor an indictment of, the suburbs – it’s a letter from the suburbs.” This is a letter from the development behind James Howard Kunstler’s back yard.
I’m called Country Estates because that’s what I destroyed. Clarence Hungerford Mackay’s estate, that’s what this place used to be. It had a mansion for a heart and gravel carriage drive arteries. And when Clarence was done it became the teenagers’. In the abandoned mansion they would make memories, fires, and love. I became jealous of the one decaying home which could provide so much, and so I built a thousand new ones. Maybe my mistake was thinking you wanted your own home more than you wanted to explore somebody else’s.
I was built by demolition. Nothing could go up until everything went down, and so I brought in the bulldozers. I asked them to dig a storm sump the size of Lake Ronkonkoma. I asked them to clear away the trees. I was so excited. I knew we were taking away but we were going to give back so much more. Maybe my mistake was thinking I could build by knocking down.
My shutters don’t shut. My roads, in truth, are dead ends. I promised you your own home but your only claim of separation from your neighbor is the incremented number on your mailbox. I gave you windows only so you could look at more of yourself and walking paths to your car. I thought if I came up with something perfect I should repeat it a thousand times. Maybe my mistake is thinking happiness could be found in perfection.
You don’t think about me when I’m your home but you hate me when I’m not. I’ve seen you criticize the Chrysler Building when it was new and I’ve seen you glorify flat sidewalks when they’re old with life. I know you can be fickle with your critiques but I can tell you hate me and you probably always will. I’m not distinct enough to slowly become loved and I fear I won’t be around long enough to become rare. You know I eat the country and I constrict cities. I sprawl out from them, clearing everything and becoming nothing. Maybe my mistake is thinking I could be a place when I only exist between them.
Maybe my mistake was thinking all you wanted was the things you need.
It takes a careful reading of Jane Jacobs to realize what she really wants of modern city life, and an even more careful one to figure out what she wants to do with its vehicles. She derides eviscerating expressways but begs for more streets. The obvious difference, and Jacobs says this herself, is that the latter invite pedestrian traffic along with the vehicular. People cut across small streets and find shortcut alleys. Transportation is vital to the planning of a city, and often influences decisions not easy revoked. The width of streets, the presence of bike lanes, the number of sidewalks. Robert Moses embraced an urban environment carved by the car, but I think it would be too simplistic to say that Jacobs wanted a city built for pedestrians.
Yet, as Jacobs calls out city planners for not knowing what to do with automobiles, her archenemy Robert Moses could probably whip up a decent backsass, asking exactly where she planned to put the city’s growing automobile traffic. On her densely-gridded pedestrian-friendly streets? In fact, I’m not sure we totally understand what Jacobs did want. We root for Jacobs because she triggers a relatively recent evolutionary adaptation: the hipster instinct to root for the underdog. No need to fully understand what Jacobs was rooting for herself.
What Jacobs so dearly loved was the diversity of a shared street and a shared city. She did not want to separate driving from walking, shopping from living, or working from playing. She called it the “ballet of the sidewalk,” each dancer a different urban character reacting to everything and everyone else in the urban environment, bikers twirling around delivery trucks and shopkeepers pliéing to passersby and let’s cut straight to the point: I don’t think Jane Jacobs would approve of the High Line.
That’s right. Underdog against underdog. I think there are a lot of modern-day city planning success stories that, at least on paper, seem to be exactly the type of thing Jacobs stood against, and the High Line is one of them. It is, at its core, one of Jacobs’s detested “promenades that go from no place to nowhere.” It offers a highly filtered type of sidewalk ballet: pedestrians only, no pets allowed, no sports allowed, and the closest you’ll get to storefronts are the highly regulated vendor carts. But people love it. People love the High Line, over four million per year. Four million promenaders on a promenade from no place to nowhere.
Jane Jacobs loved Rockefeller Plaza, or at least she praised it for its activation of its own narrow streets. Yet Jane did not seem to be aware of the massive freight delivery system under the ground which makes the street (and ice rink) life seem so innocently quaint. Again, the diverse harmony which Jacobs witnesses on the surface is actually a filtered one: delivery trucks are banned from standing in Rockefeller Plaza, and instead hundreds of them per day utilize a network of underground loading docks and freight elevators to deliver goods to the nine buildings of Rockefeller Plaza. These trucks would surely clog the stage if left to figure out their own part in the ballet.
Jane Jacobs got urban planners and citizens to value cacophony, but she sometimes was too quick to name enemies. Certainly we are too quick to name enemies for her, as her book is cited as a reason to stop every large development project every undertaken. Sometimes, people seem to enjoy walking from no place to nowhere and sometimes, a diverse and “natural” street life is the result of aggressive traffic filtering and engineering. Utopias are complex, and sometimes a skyscraper joins in the ballet.
I find I can get lost on the city’s other layers.
Kevin Lynch asked citizens to draw maps of their home cities, but all maps were drawn flat, at a top-down perspective. Wayfinding arrows pointing up or down mean “forward” or “right here” more often than they actually mean up or down. Structures and the streets are seen as two separate worlds: streets guide you to building entrances, and from there building signage guides you to your floor and your room until you are ready to be guided back onto the street. The city is flat, according to maps and brains. Structures are an opportunity to move vertically, but never to move around. To move within a building is to explore a single stationary point on a map. Built structures are pauses in lateral movement.
But the city, at least New York City, offers a ample opportunity to mess with the system. In December 2014 I joined the Obscura Society, a collective of urban explorers and scavengers of the interesting, on a tour of Midtown’s underground. A series of connected shopping centers, skyscraper basements, and corporate lobbies allows the apt traveler to get from St. Patrick’s Cathedral to Times Square without ever seeing the sky. A forgotten spur of the popular Rockefeller Center underground shopping concourse leads to McGraw Hill’s basement, which neighbors Barclays, and so on. Willing to use a MetroCard swipe? An additional series of subway platforms and pedestrian tunnels will allow you to continue to Port Authority Bus Terminal entirely by fluorescent light.
Landmarks are difficult when the tallest object is the ceiling. Even time and weather are lost in an eternally lit urban vault. I am not accustomed to walking on marble floors while meanwhile traversing avenues. Human exhaustion is a coarse indicator of distance at best, and says nothing about one’s heading. Even when the underground is well-labeled, it takes effort to imagine what I am under.
Everything about how I navigate depends on the assumption that I am exploring a flat surface with an open sky. I orient with tall structures and measure distance using numbered streets. Teaching myself to orient in the world below, whether the Midtown tunnels or way past the boarding area on a Grand Central platform, is an exercise in thinking about how I usually know where I am. It is learning a new geographic language, then attempting to translate between it and my more familiar language by trying to determine what is above me when I’m in the hum of the underground.
Of course, what I explored in December is tame part of the underground, and still a far cry from being truly lost. The organization of a grid on the surface creates a tangle of underground infrastructure. Subway tunnels snake around basements while rivers rerouted by architecture still flow underground. These are the places I would love to get lost, in the underground byproducts of a city on the land. Where the art of wayfinding is a mere afterthought and tunnels are built to keep things moving, but not for navigation.
The ancients* have long chanted that topological faithfulness is next to godliness, but they are wrong, and they can never be trusted to give simple directions to dinner parties. Accuracy is the enemy of wayfinding. The human brain distorts in order to comprehend. This is no act of laziness, but in fact a rather efficient method of compression. Kevin Lynch, in the very book where he coined that convenient term wayfinding, asked passersby to sketch maps of their own familiar city,
It was as if the map were drawn on an infinitely flexible rubber sheet; directions were twisted, distances stretches or compressed, large forms so changed from their actual scale projection as to be at first unrecognizable.
We look now to The MTA Subway Map, which shares with human-drawn maps this knack, a certain je ne sais pas quoi, for being incredibly helpful and wildly inaccurate.
While Central Park is busy being approximately a square, Rockaway Park is conveniently rotated so that the island runs vertically.
There is, in fact, a celebrated tradition of practical wrongness among transit mapmakers, and I wish to make the argument that maps such as these, which distort geography for the sake of systemic clarity, have long been exploiting the mind’s mapmaking shortcuts which have been documented by Lynch. And it begins with Harry Beck.
Before Harry Beck came along and distorted reality, upending the very values held dear to mapmaking, the London Underground read much like a streetmap, mostly because it was. A dim but spatially accurate map of the streets, gardens, and monuments underlays the brightly colored subway lines on a 1908 map of the London Underground Railways. Beck, however, worked in the London Underground signals office, where circuit diagrams were the standard visual language for representing complex systems. In circuit diagrams, it matters not how long any wire is or how creatively it is bent. Only where it connects, and where it does not. In 1933, Beck drew a map of his employer’s train system following this same logic, obliterating even the cues of ground-level streets, and geographic accuracy in the London Underground maps has been a relic of the past ever since.
When the MTA, in 1972, commissioned graphic designer and eyebrow enthusiast Massimo Vignelli to redesign the New York City subway system’s in-system signage and maps, they got more (read: less) than they were prepared to get.
Note Central Park, now horizontal, and be sure not to miss the new and improved off-white water. In a minimalist frenzy, Vignelli drew a subway map which consisted exclusively of David Lynch’s five elements of a city:
- Paths: the colored subway lines
- Edges: the perimeters between differing colors
- Districts: loosely, the disparate islands
- Nodes: the stops and connections along each line
- Landmarks: labeled parks and, loosely, stations named after their local landmark
The MTA, not totally into this whole Bauhaus thing, settled on the more colorful and slightly curvier (but still very warped) map we see today in every subway car. Yet, just as Lynch found that those more familiar with the city “thought more in terms of specific paths and their interrelationships,” the MTA in 2011 revived Vignelli’s map for the launch of The Weekender, a service used nearly exclusively by seasoned riders to identify upcoming subway outages.