Tuesday, September 28, 2010

upward expansion and other facets of NYC

As a small child, my parents would occasionally take me through the tunnel from New Jersey, out into NYC for a Broadway show or a family get-together. The hustle and bustle of New York City always overwhelmed me since it differed so much from the quiet little town in which I grew up. Whenever we visited, I would inevitably start to feel trapped by the city and its enormous buildings that seemed to block out all possible light and nature. As we would walk around the city, my parents, who spent many years living in the city, often commented on its small size. I, however, could not envision New York City as anything but huge until I started living in New York and lost the etic perception of the outsider.

One prominent issue that is raised by the paragraph above is the contradictory idea that New York City can at once be viewed as both large and small. The huge quantity of people and the numerous buildings certainly help to give the feel of a large city; however, the idea of largeness exists mainly as the center of etic perceptions of thought, which are streamed through the “sensory overload” that one experiences upon first visiting NYC. An outlook of smallness seems to occur only after such a number of experiences in the city that one no longer views the city as foreign, but can recall memories from individual parts and can, in a sense, claim those parts as their own. In “Material Culture as Text”, Hodder discusses the “emic” verses the “etic’, and explains that the use of space can perhaps act as a bridge between the two viewpoints. In this way of thinking, a scarcity of space in NYC can be recognized when people or institutions attempt to acquire their own personal place to live in the city. Following in the same vein as Albert’s post, obtaining private living spaces in the city can be just as difficult to accomplish as creating private space on the R train.

Another instance of the scarcity of space can be seen in Columbia University’s somewhat controversial expansion to West Harlem. Columbia University has a significantly smaller campus than most of the other universities of a similar size and thus has been crunched for space. Even with the addition of the Harmony Hall undergraduate residence and the new science building, space is still tight. What has always seemed strange to me is the way that Lerner Hall was designed to waste so much space with those huge ramps when space is already so limited. (Article on the CU Manhattanville expansion.)

The last idea that I will bring up about space in NYC is the concept of upward expansion as it relates to archaeology and, thus, the past. The idea of space is central to one's perception of the present and the past. On any archaeological excavation, one strives to locate the specific place in which past generations of humans lived and flourished. This idea of space upward for skyscrapers is strange in that the different levels of occupation all occur in one time period; yet these levels, now orientated upward, seem to exist on the same plane as that of chronological occupation that occurs in archaeology. One would then think that the upward expansion of space seen in New York City would automatically evoke the presence of previous occupation underneath the ground. However, in this case, the skyscrapers do not tend to act as signifiers for the previous expansion, now underground, that occurred upward over time. It seems to me that the lack of nature presented by these skyscrapers causes the archaeological aspect of upward expansion underneath the city to be lost as the signified. Therefore, the upward expansion of NYC creates a disconnect between the city space and the more natural underground environment of the city’s archaeological past.

Camille Hutt

Monday, September 27, 2010

Brooklyn Bound

"The historical usurpation and theoretical oddity that install the image within the rights of reality are determined as the forgetting of a simple origin." (Derrida, Of Grammatology, pg 37)

The people who lived here owned the property once, maybe twice. The title reads like the Popol Vuh bestowed and taken back leaving traces of past worlds behind. The house stood empty for three or more years before some one tracked down the distant relative who, in his twenties, had no idea he owned a house. The day he saw it, smelled it, he hired a realtor to sell it. She would not go inside during the open house but someone bought it. If it were any place other than Brooklyn I would suggest they salt the earth. Instead, the new owners will remove the asbestos siding and put the clapboard back. The next new owners will know nothing of the five dogs that never got walked, the innumerable visits from police and that their “adopted son” sometimes ate out of the trash cans.

Does Brooklyn derive sustenance from its own history, ingesting and remaking it? The Coney Island of Requiem for a Dream was refashioned in its own image by an Italian designer, its future set to be moderated by Mike Wallace at the Graduate Center this Thursday. As Brooklyn’s history is folded back into itself, the Dodgers become the Cyclones and ticket are $5 for the bleachers.

Requiem for a dream
Save Coney Island


Sunday, September 26, 2010

Semiotic Topographies

“What we call ideology only achieves consistency by intervening in social space and its production, and by thus taking on body therein. Ideology per se might well be said to consist primarily in a discourse upon social space (Lefebvre, 1974: 44).”
An almost daily reminder of this discourse is my walk up through Morningside Park to Columbia’s campus. The significance of the park itself has been contested for many years, and I’ve always found the position of the University in relation to the poorer neighborhoods below to be especially striking. The University relocated to its current campus in 1896, joining St. Luke’s Hospital and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. It has often been suggested that gathering such institutions in their locale atop a cliff was meant to recall the Athenian Acropolis. Topographical extremities seem to have been a signifier since the emergence of the first permanent settlements and though the heights no longer serve practical measures as such, they have retained their inherent symbolism as a bastion of relative power and wealth, in this case magnified by the placement of the Park. The characteristics of the topography in this case create the signifier.
The decision to situate a park between one hundred tenth and one hundred twenty-third streets was made at the request of the city's comptroller, who thought that the 'severe topography' of the area would make the extension of the street grid prohibitively expensive. First proposed in 1867, the park was conceived long before the racial and economic divide between Harlem and the Heights. However, Morningside Park has since had the effect of distancing Harlem from the academic community that, geographically, is only blocks away. While this may have aided Harlem in establishing a unique identity as a community, it has also led to a degree of disengagement by the University from the nearby community that has sometimes resulted in hostility.
From the parapet along Morningside Drive, one is able to survey the buildings of Harlem, and beyond them. It is a natural vantage point to gaze upon the urban landscape below. To reach Harlem, one must descend multiple flights of steps and continue walking downhill along a path, only reaching the neighborhood of Harlem itself after passing through an open gate in a cast-iron fence that contrasts sharply with the grandeur of the west entrances. The difference in perspective from above as one passes through the gate is striking. There is no vista now, only the immediate urban environment. Passing through the Park back to Morningside Heights requires a more strenuous walk, as one must wind one's way back up the path and the stairs, confronted by hill, cliff, and wall. If a wrong turn is taken, it will shortly be discovered that not all paths lead directly to the streets above, many instead meandering back down into the park.
An interesting dialogue over this function of the park's location can be observed in the material culture of the park itself. An elegant pond in the park is the remnant of a controversial attempt by Columbia University to build an athletic center in the park in the 1960's. Although the center was to have featured a facility for the use of Harlem residents, it was regarded by the emerging civil rights movement as an attempt at segregation. The administration denied this, stating that the athletic center would benefit both communities. However, student protests in 1968 halted construction of the new building. Whether there was any true racial bias inherent in the plan is not as relevant as is the observable paradigm shift to an active attempt at integration. Interestingly, there is also a statue at the one hundred sixteenth 'Morningside entrance' of Carl Schurz “A Defender of Liberty and a friend of Human Rights.” It is explained that Schurz was an advocate for abolition and was active on behalf of Native Americans at the bureau of Indian affairs.
Pedestrians are able to learn that the area was inhabited by a succession of Native Americans, and Dutch and English settlers. The immediate vicinity can be connected to both the American Revolution and the War of 1812. The attempt by Columbia to build an athletic center is noted and contextualized within the larger civil rights movement as a moment of solidarity between the student body and the population of Harlem. The presence on the Harlem Plain of Native American and Dutch settlements, eventually appropriated by the English settlers is noted in the same perfunctory way as the controversy over the athletic center, on a placard at the Morningside entrance to the park. The statues and friezes that act as a monument to people and ideas attempt to weave a multicultural history into the fabric of the park.

97 Orchard Street

You have to admit, there is an element of obscured "nosiness" inherent to all anthropologists and archaeologists. Perhaps we're more comfortable with "inquisitive" and "empirical," but we are, in some sense, prying into the lives and private spaces (once upon a time) of which are not our own.

At least, that's how it felt (for a nano-second, maybe two) walking into the partially restored tenements at 97 Orchard Street.

(From Left: Present day, 97 Orchard Street tenement beside parked car; Photo of Orchard St. tenements by Tenement Museum ca. 1930s)

Just this past Wednesday afternoon, I was strolling through the Lower East Side, making my way west toward Little Italy to meet with family for the San Gennaro festival. With a couple of hours to spare, it seemed like a good time to finally check out the Tenement Museum, which holds various walking tours of restored tenements that housed thousands of immigrant families from 1863 until 1935 when they were abandoned due to "unsustainable conditions" (undoubtedly an effect of the Great Depression). (Museum Pamphlet)

Knowing how small and tall present-day apartments are in the densely populated City of New York, even for the wealthiest of residents, I was anxious to see how (and how many) early struggling immigrant families settled themselves into such confined spaces. So, I picked the longest, in-depth tour the museum had to offer - the 2 p.m. 2 hour "Getting By: Immigrants Weathering Hard Times" tour. It focused on the interiors of three tenement apartments of 97 Orchard St., which were formerly occupied by the Gumpertz (1874) of German-Jewish descent, the Baldizzi (1935) of Italian-Catholic descent, and a third apartment which excited me in an unexpected way (more on that later).
Upon entry of 97 Orchard St., the year is 1863, and we are greeted by a long, narrow and windowless corridor, staircase to the right. The only source of light available is the pale daylight peeking in through the transom window above the front door. Outside, around the back of the building are the latrines (right photo), shared among six families residing in this tenement. No indoor plumbing. Water was retrieved from a pump near the latrines and carried up in pails to the apartments.

Tenement 1: The Gumpertz

Up one flight of stairs, we enter the Gumpertz' (see pictures below). The year is 1870, the tenement door opens into the kitchen followed by the parlor (the only room with widows). Flanking the other side of the kitchen is a small bedroom where Mr. and Mrs Gumpertz, along with their 3 children, sleep. As to be expected, each living space has been transformed to serve multiple functions. The parlor became a workspace (not entirely unfamiliar if you work from home, right?) for Mrs. Gumpertz who worked as a seamstress - various garments and fabrics are strewn across the floor, nailed to the walls and folded on shelves. In the kitchen, above the iron stove, is a makeshift clothesline for hanging the wash. The stove is both an appliance for cooking, heating the house, and for ironing clothes. Efficiency is key in the city, so when one of 4 or 5 small (heavy) irons cools, Mrs. Gumpertz simply grabs the next. (See Gumpertz kitchen and parlor below.)

Gumpertz Kitchen at 97 Orchard Street The Gumpertz Parlor in the Tenement Museum

Am I the only one thinking that the size and setup isn't all that bad for poverty? I couldn't help but feel a little left wanting on the material culture front. What were their sources for these reconstructions? Where those jugs imports sold in NYC, or brought over by the Gumpertz? Why must the aspiring archaeologist in me have Skepticism sitting on one shoulder and Relief on the other? (Oh, if C.S. Peirce could see me now. If it was really 1874, it wouldn't be out of the realm of possibilities and he hasn't published The Fixation of Belief yet!) On the other hand, the tour guide gave us information on what would otherwise be unrepresented in this built environment - drama, emotions and Mrs. Gumpertz frantic search for her missing husband as implied through historical census records, diaries and missives. According to our guide, missing persons is not uncommon at this time, whether by shanghaiing, suicide, hate crimes or simply running away among other possibilities.

Tenement 2: The Baldizzi

Baldizzi Kitchen The Baldizzi Kitchen and Parlor in the Tenement Museum Baldizzi family apartment at 97 Orchard Street
(Clockwise: Kitchen view 1; Kitchen view 2; Parlor with photo of FDR by mirror)

Moving on with the tour, jumping ahead to 1935, we enter the Baldizzi tenement across the hall. (It was the first time I've ever seen linoleum rugs! I embarrassed myself asking if they were mere representations of what would have been there. Oh, the dangers of interpretation.) Slightly better conditions. They had electricity, running water and even a radio to listen to Italian operas and FDR's Fireside Chats (see photo and video below). Like the Gumpertz, the kitchen served multiple functions. The Baldizzis, cooked, bathed, ate, played games and listened to the radio in the kitchen. The tub, adjacent to sink was covered by a lid on which was used as counter space.
(Radio photo courtesy of South Dakota State Historical Society)

I strangely felt more at ease in this tenement. It looked more "lived-in" and the reconstruction was informed by the late Josephine Baldizzi who lived here as a girl. She directed the museum to "move the dresser here," "we had [portrait] FDR hanging there," and donated a lot of her families old possessions, like old photographs, candles, a packed suitcase and her father's tool box (he was a carpenter by trade) among other items.

It was particularly interesting to see what was hanging on the parlor walls of the Baldizzis. Being an Italian-Catholic family, the Baldizzis had religious prints of Mother Mary and Jesus hanging on one wall (this triggered a memory of similar portraits hung in my grandmother's bedroom), and on the opposite wall hung a small black and white print of Franklin D. Roosevelt. I'm not sure you would find the portraits of current Presidents hanging on the walls of contemporary homes (maybe a magnet of President Obama on the fridge next to your little brother's school drawing?). While our current financial crisis is described by economists as the worst since the Great Depression, what does this say about the place of important political figures in our daily lives? Television and youtube videos of the President's weekly address may have something to do with the absence of such portraits in our private spaces, or it does it?

And finally...

The Ruin Apartment in the Tenement MuseumWallpaper Layers, upper floors

The most comfortable spot in the tenement. Empty. Minimally touched. Dusty and several layers of peeling paint. Familiar. How backward is that? The tour guide noticed the gleam from my eyes and said, "Now this is home for you, isn't it?" Earlier introductions and architectural/material related questions revealed the shovel bum in me.

In a country built on immigration, this one tour of one tenement in a small section of the Lower East Side of Manhattan was a microcosm within a microcosm, within a microcosm. It brought together 6 strangers of various ethnic backgrounds, occupations, and frames of mind (and objectives) into one urban, built environment with over half a century's worth of immigrant occupation, which presently stands as one of many cultural channels around New York City.

Left: Our tour guide, Jason, and a tourist from Italy, Elena. Standing outside of Museum shop, 108 Orchard St. Tenements across the street.
The tour group I was with definitely made this an interesting experience. There were only six of us (normally 15), two couples, the tour guide and myself. One couple, Enrique and Elena, were tourists from northern Italy, and the other couple, Steve and Silvia, had great-great aunts and uncles that immigrated to NYC from Sicily around the same time as the Baldizzi family. So, while my interests were archaeological in nature, I was able to hear and see Steve, Silvia, Enrique and Elena connect with Italian-American immigrant history - mapping this experience along parallel axes, the tangible and the intangible, the material and the psycho-social, the archaeologist and the NYC tourist.


Monday, September 20, 2010

Private Places on the R

A belch precedes the train, the exhalation organizing constellations of people and their things over the gum- and garbage-dotted platform. Squealing to a stop, the chugging R aligns them, however chaotically, at its sliding doors. Ear buds face old-school cans, their podcasts breaking the train’s squeal. Reading materials bob and droop, bob and droop, bob and droop, resigned to their wrinkly fate. Bags jump from between the divisions of the station’s wooden benches, rising apart and floating apart. Sunglasses hide curious eyes, their wearers made mysterious -- a deeply cheesy brand of mysterious.

The R doors slide open in a synchronized swoosh. The station briefly reanimates, galaxies stream from train cars as our constellations stream in, objects orbiting their associated people. Once inside -- “stand clear of the closing doors!” -- subsets rush to work, feeding the seconds-ago depleted galaxies of struggling things. The faux-wood membrane of the third car from the rear keeps its communicating contents ignorant as to the physics of their trip, allowing for the manufacture of private places.

Private places, facilitated by orange and yellow seats -- seats that dip and rise horizontally, supporting individual claims to space far more effectively than riders’ bottoms. But those seats, those prized seats, have to be caught by the same bottoms or saved in advance by a colonizing book or eager garment during the course of the initial scramble. Print and technological objects struggle among those constellations not quick enough to take a seat into orbit early on. The strain of hanging from ill-placed bars causes the personal walls of the standing to buckle as they come up. They are hanging exhibitions. The cleverest constellations, in contrast, find their way to end and corner seats, coveted for their comparative seclusion and broad range of sight.

Sight: in a sealed galaxy where no one is looking for fear of everyone looking ("see something, say something!"), how can patrons rest? How can products act properly to produce self-contained universes with all those damned eyes bearing down on them? Distracting advertisements prevent staring to some degree, yes, but how long can a body take to fake read the lone "LEARN ENGLISH" sign in the third car from the rear? Sunglasses then? Few constellations can bear the conspicuousness. Teetering between hip and creepy, sunglasses make for an awkward sense of place. Sleeping, or, more commonly, fake-sleeping, puts the finishing touch on the private universe of the person-object constellation -- a strongly bodily component in a largely orbiting process. And the R squeals to a stop, fresh inputs clustered along its sliding doors, tired constellations pressed against its windows.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Representations of New York through Museum Collections

This post comes out of a side interest that I have had for a couple of years in cultural heritage protection, the international trade in antiquities and art, and the role that the US plays in both these arenas. As an archaeologist, these topics are particularly important because of the implications they have for solving the problem of archaeological site looting. For this first post however, I would like to discuss, very simply, a few points about this large, discipline-wide issue that relate to us and this class, namely, the representations of cultural heritage that we can find in New York, and what these representations might signify about New York’s culture

New York has had a long history with global cultural heritage going back to the establishments of its first major art collections. During the 1800s, art collecting in the US surged alongside the country’s growth as a powerful industrialized nation; wealthy New York citizens were the first to amass huge collections of art objects, antiquities, and “curiosities” from different cultures around the world. Over time, these private collections were donated to public museums and have become the cores of many of New York’s most famous museum collections (ex: The Lehman Collection of Art at the MET). In addition, wealthy New York denizens were also the sponsors of large-scale explorative expeditions that aided not only in the continued building of these collections, but also in jump-starting the careers of many of the today’s most heralded pioneers of anthropological, ethnographic, archaeological, and art-historical scholarship.

Looking back upon the history of this time period, it is possible to infer a connection between wealth and power, intellectual pursuit, and emergence of New York City as an international center of elite culture and Western civilized society. In many ways, the formation of large art collections that were eventually to become the pillars of museums like the Metopolitan Museum of Art were signs of New York’s (and in many ways the US’s) entrance onto the global scene. They were physical representations of New York’s wealth and intellectual prowess.

At the same time, however, these art collections were also physical representations of other cultures. Although largely incomplete and usually quite biased, the objects within the collections were meant to recreate (imperfectly) the culture of a distant land and people, contact with whom the average US citizen, no matter how wealthy, was unlikely ever to have. They were thus simultaneously signs of “otherness” as well as signs of New York elite culture.

My point in bringing up this topic in particular is to try and think about how New York’s representation through these collections has changed from the early days of their creation. The days of direct, large-scale art and antiquities collecting is over, and with the advent of cultural heritage protection laws, museum policies have come under serious scrutiny. In the past several years, many of the Western world’s most elite institutions have been pressured to return objects that source nations claim were unlawfully removed (one of the most notorious of these cases was the recent return to Italy of the MET’s Eurphronios Krater). What do these issues signify about New York’s history of art and antiquities collecting? Was it a bad thing? Have these recent legal troubles changed the way in which New York elite society is represented?

Walking down Madison Avenue on the east side, one encounters the shops of dozens if not hundreds of art and antiquities dealers. The owners of some of the largest of these establishments are powerful denizens of New York society, carry much weight in elite circles, and often have large collections of art and antiquities themselves. In many ways, the continued existence of well-regarded private art collectors and dealers, many of whom pride themselves on their connoisseurship signifies that the old ideals of intellectual culture still thrive among New York’s elite despite the somewhat harsh criticism that collecting has garnered in the past several years. That the art market is a multi-billion dollar industry today also shows that the connection between art and wealth has also been retained.

I suppose a question to close with could then be: What part of New York is represented through its art collections in the modern world? New York has become so diverse since the days of its first art collections, and the cultures that were once represented and glimpsed only through art objects can now be seen, heard, and tasted on any street corner of the city (ie: there is no need to visit a museum in order to experience Ethiopian culture). New York’s multi-culturalism is one of its most interesting aspects, so what have the art objects that were once the only window into the outside world come to signify these days?

The context of public archaeology in NYC

Yesterday I attended a symposium called “Archaeology and the Public in New York” held at the African Burial Ground National Monument. The five speakers discussed publicly-engaged archaeology at various sites across the metro area, including the African Burial Ground, Seneca Village, Washington Square’s potter’s field, the ship at the World Trade Center, and Joseph Lloyd Manor on Long Island. What I found most compelling about the symposium presentations was the idea that archaeological sites frequently take on significance (signify) outside of the context in which they are interpreted by most archaeologists. This is particularly apparent in the case of the African Burial Ground, as its tortuous and tumultuous history from rediscovery to landmarking amply illustrates.
The notion that archaeological sites exist and are shaped in a present and public context becomes more complicated when examined in light of questions raised by practitioners and critics of contextual archaeology. According to Johnsen and Olsen (1992: 420) the concern of hermeneutic philosophy is how we understand: “What conditions make understanding of otherness, past or present, possible?” Hermeneutic philosophy (however problematic are its various incarnations of Volk and “objective mind”) asks us to consider the connection (or leap) that we make between the material culture we find and the meaning it had for its users. Frequently the public(s) and descendent communities intuitively make these leaps, unconsciously (or consciously) connecting their own contextual experience to material culture in order to understand the past, in much the same vein as the Historicists advocated. Some archaeologists working at the African Burial Ground who feel deeply connected to both the buried and descendent communities freely make these connections. Many archaeologists, however, express a greater reluctance to make such leaps, yet that we do indeed leap is undeniable. In public archaeology, perhaps a relevant question is how do we leap together?
The question of connection is a difficult one. Bloch and Thomas (discussed in Buchli 1995) raise additional challenges for considering the question of interpretation and connection: the significance of objects is shifting both in the past and the present, and the significance of material culture is what we in the present take from it and use in our own understanding of ourselves. Both public engagement and the epistemology of our discipline thus challenge us to reconsider prevalent notions of what constitutes valid knowledge production, how we connect the past to the present (which we inevitably do), and the goals of archaeological investigation.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

"the actual topography of New York is garbage-based"

"Archaeology's object is garbage." -Michael Shanks

The Believer recently published this delightful interview with Robin Nagle, the NYC Department of Sanitation's anthropologist-in-residence, who's probably the only person to have been employed both as a professor at NYU and a sanitation worker in the Bronx. The conversation touches on topics like the history of urban sanitation (and the issue of smell I raised in the post below), the role of waste in forming the micro-geography of the city, and the paradoxical infrastructural scale and social invisibility of sanitation work. The following exchange seemed particularly relevant for this blog:
BLVR: You’ve also written about how sanitation workers commented on how they get to know a block’s trash on their route over time, down to the specific households. I was wondering if this was at all surprising, or useful, for you in regard to your training in anthropology and social science, which aim to coax out subtle information but in very different ways.
RN: It’s just archaeology. But it’s archaeology in the moment, very temporary, nothing formal. It’s a folk archaeology of contemporary household trash on the curb.
It takes time, because you don’t get a steady route, necessarily, until you have some seniority. But senior men and women who’ve been on the job for a while, who’ve had the same route for a long time, they know. I’ve heard stories of a guy who watched a family: watched a couple marry, move into this building where he picked up, and they had a child. The child came to know him. He watched her grow up. He watched her go to college. He watched her have children of her own. And they became buddies over time. And then when he retired, she was heartbroken. It was a nice little vignette.
We assume when we put our garbage in the bag—especially if, you know, it’s a black bag, usually, or a green bag, we can’t see what’s inside. We don’t want people to see what’s inside. How embarrassing! But those bags break. Or it’s just in a bin and then it’s tipped and all the contents spill. And sure, you can read it. Over time, if you’re doing that same set of blocks for ten years, you will be able to give a pretty savvy account of what’s happened there across that decade.

Monday, September 13, 2010

the gowanus canal

This post is draws on an ongoing project about the Gowanus Canal, a severely polluted industrial waterway in South Brooklyn that was named a Superfund site in March 2010. The canal was constructed in the mid-nineteenth century, and by the 1880s, it was a vital conduit for moving building supplies (including the stone for Brooklyn’s brownstones) into and manufactured goods out of the rapidly growing borough. A range of industries mushroomed around its perimeter: manufactured gas plants, coal yards, tanneries, cement and paint factories, printing presses, and chemical works. In the 1920s, the canal was the busiest commercial waterway in the U.S., but postwar deindustrialization brought about its rapid decline as a transportation infrastructure. Today, the area hosts continuing small-scale manufacturing, several public housing projects, pockets of rapid gentrification, art studios, empty warehouses, a plethora of development proposals, grassroots environmental activism, hipster dance parties, and EPA research teams.

I. Death and Decay
There's a longstanding popular association of the canal with death, criminal activity, and uncanny hauntings. In Jonathan Lethem’s novel Motherless Brooklyn, a character jokes that the Gowanus is “the only body of water in the world…that was ninety percent guns.” Newspaper reports from the nineteenth century record frequent drownings in the canal, often suicides; the twentieth century saw the emergence of the rumor that the canal served as a dumping ground for the corpses of those killed by the mob. I'm interested in the semiotic process that linked the canal to morbidity and criminality.

One of the things that's sparked my curiosity about the canal is its evident attraction, in recent years, for a growing number of artists, urban explorers, anarchist squatters, photographers, writers, amateur historians and archaeologists. They (or we, I should say) are drawn to this uncanny legacy, and to the aesthetic and affective qualities of the canal and the surrounding landscape, with its derelict factories and crumbling warehouses. Many of the visual artists work with images of ruin, contamination and decay—in the words of one photographer, who’s been shooting the canal for decades, “the pollution creates...a great canvas.” The New York Times City Room blog, citing the canal’s “faded industrial-maritime glamour, beautifully framed vistas, de Chirico-esque natural lighting and abiding mood set somewhere between peaceful and desolate,” recently appealed to readers to submit entries for a “little online show of Gowanus artwork,” and received hundreds of images in response. I've mostly thought about this aspect of the canal in terms of aesthetics (in particular, those of the modern/industrial/urban ruin, a subject whose appeal seems to be rising), which suggests to me a question about the relationship of aesthetics to semiotics.

II. Smell and Contamination
Even in its early years, the large quantities of sewage and industrial effluent dumped into the canal created a pollution problem that earned it the nickname “the Lavender Lake.” During the 1880s and 1890s, the canal's notorious stench was noted in sanitary reports, newspaper coverage, and even songs.

The problem persists today, compounded by the presence of a century's accumulation of industrial waste (Walter Mugdan, EPA's Region 2 director, says that in many Superfund sites, the EPA measures contaminant concentration in parts per millions or billions, but that in the Gowanus Canal, they must measure in parts per hundred—the sediment layer at the bottom of the canal is 4.5 % coal tar, a byproduct of manufactured gas production). The canal is still a dumping ground for biological waste--more than fifty times a year, rain overwhelms New York City’s sewer system, dumping some 27 billion gallons of raw sewage and storm runoff into urban waterways. It's mainly this sewage that's responsible for the characteristic stink of the Gowanus today. I've argued elsewhere that the stench of the canal has become a means of indexing other forms of contamination in the canal--the dangerous, unseen materials like PCBs and PAHs--and the fears they inspire. Unlike these slow-acting carcinogens, the smell is a palpable register of the canal's pollution, perceptible in immediate sensory form. (Betty Lester, a local resident and activist, echoes other locals when she links the two: “I'm no scientist and I'm no expert, but I believe they gonna find it's more contaminated than they thought. You knew from the smell that it was unhealthy.”) My limited encounters with semiotic theory so far have emphasized visual and verbal (or at least aural) signs, but I'd suggest this is an example of a semiotic relationship materialized as scent. So another thing I'd like to consider might be the ways to think about semiotics in relation to different sensory registers: touch, smell, taste, and so on.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Nieuw Amsterdam in New York

For a Dutch visitor, the signs of the old bond between New York and the Netherlands are obvious and many. Downtown has a Broad Street (Bree[d]straat) - the same name as a typical Dutch town's Main Street. Outside the old city walls (Wall Street), there is the Broad Way (Breede Weg): a naming convention that is mirrored in the Dutch West India Company's other former outpost at Curaçao, in the Carribbean. There's the Bowery (De Bouwerij - The Farm), Gramercy (Krom Messie - Little Crooked Knife [Brook]), Greenwich (Greenewijk - Pine Town). New York was Nieuw Amsterdam, but the Dutch settlers appear to have begun to consciously recreate their entire homeland: Brooklyn (Breukelen), Harlem (Haarlem), and Beverwijk (renamed Albany) are all towns close to the original Amsterdam in Holland. The Dutch Republic's parliament was commemorated at Staten Island (Staten Eiland), but other place names were given new, often perhaps unimaginative names like Long Island ('t Lange Eiland) or Rhode Island (Rood Eiland - Red Island).

Such signs may be mere curiosities for the average American tourist or any other foreign visitor to New York, except the Dutch one. These signs open up the door to the past and questions of the past can easily lead to questions of identity and nationhood. The past has often proven to be an excellent fighting ground for present-day conflicts and the Dutch past of New York is no exception.

Only last year did the Netherlands and the city of New York celebrate the fact that 400 years earlier Henry Hudson first sailed up what came to be called the Hudson river. The town of New Amsterdam (New York) was not founded until much later - perhaps such a date would have been a more obvious occasion to celebrate the bond between the US and the Netherlands. The celebration happened last year because it was needed, perhaps more in the Netherlands than in America because of the political upheaval caused by the emergence of a new populist right-wing movement, two of whose leaders were brutally murdered in recent years. A lot of these celebrations and their accompanying texts praised the international, multi-ethnic and tolerant character of Amsterdam and New York, as if to ward off the spirit of xenophobia associated with this movement.

Last Saturday, at the commemoration of the catastrophe of September 11, 2001, the same spirit of tolerance was once again invoked but by this time by the new voice in Dutch politics: Geert Wilders, currently the leader of the aforementioned populist movement, speeched at a protest rally, demonstrating against the Cordoba Community House-project, the so-called 'Ground Zero Mosque'. He said:

New York stands for freedom, openness and tolerance. New York’s Mayor recently said that New York is “rooted in Dutch tolerance.”

Wilders then went on to contrast this tolerance with Islam's supposed intolerance, contrasting New York with Mecca, and repeating Mayor Bloomberg's quote.

The point I would like to make here, however, is that both sides in this debate display an immense pride in the role the Dutch have played in the founding of this city and try to use it in their own agendas. Perhaps there is something of a 'lost empire' syndrome at work here - the idea that all this could have been 'ours'. A certain pride that this Dutchman will readily admit he is not unsusceptible to. The fact that many old New Yorkers also seem to take immense pride in their city's Dutch heritage only compounds the issue. Moreover, it is easy and fun to speculate on the possible Dutch origins of this or that institution, place name, etc. What matters in the end is: what do you do with this knowledge?

blasé blasé blah

Imagine walking mile after mile, never seeing a single indication of human life. After hours or even days of walking, a sign appears on the horizon. Would one's attention not be irresistibly drawn towards it? After such an absence of humanity, this lone artifact would seem incredibly significant. But by itself and without context, we cannot imagine what its meaning might be. It is significant to us only as a mystery.

But what happens when our solitary observer and sign are joined by others? Add to our scene buildings and crossroads. Populate the buildings with both people and our various animal companions. Our lone figure is no longer alone. Our senses reel from the onslaught of impressions. Nostrils are stimulated by car exhaust, restaurants, and garbage. Distant jackhammering competes with motor traffic and the ambient buzz. Alter egos come into view, each of whom is moving through their own quotidian routes and looking through their own eyes. Does such a place sound familiar?

What of our first, lonely sign? Where has it gone in the glut that we are surrounded by? Do we think of it differently than when it stood alone? I think we must. The lone sign has simultaneously become less important while becoming enriched by its myriad associations with other objects - those same objects that diminish its relative importance to the observer.

Living in an environment such as New York makes me wonder how being surrounded by uncountable signs shapes the way we live. How does the metropolitan excess of people and things both change perceptions of our surroundings and our relationships with one another?

Simmel describes for us the metropolitan type. Surrounded by the relentless sensory onslaught living in the city brings, the metropolitan forms a sort of 'protective organ' around itself. The city as the center of the money economy works in concert with what he calls an 'intellectualistic' mindset. This mindset treats people and things as interchangable, quantifiable entities. Whereas emotional relationships depend on the individuality of the actors involved, the metropolitan cannot connect emotionally with everyone they must interact with. Becoming indifferent to the distinctions between things, the metropolitan adapts what Simmel calls a blasé attitude.

Don for a moment the blasé attitude and remember our lone sign. Blasé eyes can see the rich connections between the sign and its context. But these rich connections no longer matter. Whereas thought on the lone sign ended futilely in mystery, contemplation of the sign-in-context might not even begin because of blasé disregard. The metropole shuts out the cacophony of the multitude by adopting the pose of reserve and dulling sensitivity to distinctions.

All of this leads us back to a very old problem. If we are not satisfied with either the poverty of the lone sign or the incomprehensibility of the totality of signs, what if any alternative is there to the grayness of the blasé outlook?

Monday, September 6, 2010