Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Campbell Apartments

The Campbell Apartments

When I walked into the Campbell Apartments, a bar located right next to Grand Central, the building felt historical, but not in the traditional way in which a museum or a historical site feels historical. The building, though it was restored in 1999, is made to look like Europe in the early 1900s. The antique-looking furniture, the magnificent large window over the bar, and even the painted ceiling all made me feel like I was no longer in New York City, and no longer in the 21st century.

The historical feel of this building is very different that of the Morris-Jumal mansion as described by Rich Landrigan in a previous blog entry. The Campbell Apartments look as if they belong in some other time period in history; however, it does not represent history because it is not presented as a historical building; its common-place function as a bar negates the historic sensory image of this space. Similarly, Rich pointed out that the White House, though historic, does not appear to be so because it is actively used in the present (and does not function as a museum). The Campbell Apartments loses this historic feeling and instead instills in visitors a more cognizant version of déjà vu, which evokes early 19th century buildings in Europe with similar architecture and decor.

The Columbia University campus with its columns and the philosophers names inscribed into Butler Library also gives off a similar historic feeling to that of the Campbell Apartments.

The Greek and Roman décor of the campus along with the famous philosophers’ names inscribed into Butler Library at once allude to ancient times and the intellectually superior nature of those times. This feeling instilled upon those who visit Columbia University is, in a way, used to legitimize the intellectual authority of Columbia. Furthermore, the inscribed names can be viewed as the same type of symbolic violence of proper names as described by Derrida. When seen, these names force the seer to recall a certain era and the thoughts – true and false – that one has of these philosophers. Moreover, by placing these names on a Columbia building, a misleading association can be made between these philosophers and their connection to Columbia University.

The Campbell Apartments also commits violence by using a proper name because they were never used as apartments. They were used as an office building, which is the more traditional or British meaning of ‘apartments’; however, this is still misleading when used in America.

Lastly, a play on one’s imagination is created by both the Campbell Apartments and the Columbia University campus. For the Campbell Apartments, classy-dressed waitresses in black dresses serve old-fashioned prohibition cocktails, developing the 19th century image of the place. In this sense, the Campbell Apartment business is using one’s idea of history and place to sell an image. By selling this image and making one feel a certain way, they get customers into their store and make a profit. Thus, the advertising campaign and business of the Campbell Apartments is at least partially run off of people’s idea of history and place. I find this quite interesting that a business can be aided by honing in on their historic image and trying to recreate that in each consumer. I would venture to say that other forms of advertisement also focus on the same ideas. Columbia University also does this, but in a slightly different way. The campus imagery helps the university to maintain its high prestige and, therefore, when prospective students visit, they see the image that Columbia has created for them and in a sense feel the validity of the university that Columbia has created by this image.



Camille Hutt

Sinister Signs

This spring, I was walking up Morningside Drive on a particularly windy day. An unexpected sound caused me to look up, only to see a tabletop bounce off the side of a building and land in front of me. Death briefly lifted its veil and then retreated. Why did this happen? And in general, why do we err? Why do we suffer? I think in order to understand this, we need to think about the temporal aspect of cognition.

Let me first propose that all conscious thought can be described in terms of three operations: abduction, deduction, and induction. The three processes are themselves descriptions of three particular configurations of cases, results, and rules.

A deduction starts with a rule (fire burns). It then takes a case (fire) and applies the rule (fire burns) to arrive at a result (burn). Because the type “fire” burns, this particular token of “fire” must burn. Note there is nothing in either the case or the result that is not already included in the rule or premise. This illustrates the fact that deduction can provide no new information about the world, it can only extrapolate results from rules . If the premises are true, the deductive conclusions will always be true. Subjectively, a deduction feels like “duh”. Unless consciously articulated as in a scientific context, our deductions usually don’t even rise to the level of conscious thought.

Both induction and abduction work differently than this. Inductions take cases and results and from them infer rules (this is a fire, this burns, therefore fire burns) while abductions take rules and results to arrive at cases (fire burns, this burns, therefore this is fire). Note that with both induction and abduction it is possible to err. Socrates is a man and he was mortal, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that all men are mortal. Likewise, all men may be mortal, and Socrates is mortal, but this doesn’t necessarily make him a man (Socrates could, for example, be my pet turtle).

What is the relationship between these thought processes and our consciousness? In our society it is common to associate the self with our conscious thought, but consciousness is only present for half of a cognitive process. Temporally, a cognition occurs when something happens (a result, ie a burning sensation). This experience compels us to explain what has happened by appealing to either a rule or a case. In this sense inductions and abductions are merely thoughts going in opposite directions. The Cartesians are mistaken to identify the mind and the self with this process. Where does the rule or case we draw upon to explain the result come from? They come from what we might call our unconscious, or our habitus. In a sense the sum total of all the cases and rules we have previously developed is all the unconscious is.

Wile E. Coyote about to make the tiger's leap

Because Cartesians only associate the self with what we might call the active or right-handed half of this process, the mind is seen as separate from the external world that it manipulates. The rule or case appealed to is treated as always already there. Just as a spectre comes first as a return, cognitions involve a form of temporal trickery that is forgotten and must be forgotten. But upon self-reflection we can see every time we dextrously reach out to the world, we sinisterly draw the world into us. We do not do things to the world but move through it.

Keeping this in mind, let us return to the initial question. Why did a table fall 30 floors and almost kill me, and what does this tell us about human and material agency? First, we can understand that our thought process is by necessity prone to errors and assumptions. Second, we can understand cases (or objects) as a second-order reality. With these two things in mind, we can understand misfortune as dissonance between a given actors understanding of an object and the real qualities of said object. The table had been understood by humans as “safe” and “secure”. Nothing about it drew our attention. Without even being conscious of it, we believed that its position would be unaffected by high winds. There is nothing rational or irrational about this belief. Error occurred because we misrecognized what the object was.

It is the hope that by recognizing our own thought process, we can realize the objects and cases we create are not objective representations of the world (though they are real), and through this recognition we can minimize the errors we make when we address ourselves, others, and the non-human world.

(and hopefully fall off fewer cliffs)

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Sharks and Sequoias: Unexpected Interpretants

All along the bustling streets of New York City, cars zoom through busy intersections grazing the paths of hurried pedestrians or sit idly bumper to bumper spewing harmful fumes into the atmosphere. Although these functional vehicles assume a similar purpose, transporting people throughout the city, they cannot all be considered to be one in the same. Let us not get caught up in stereotypes, however, derived from the type of people that drive a particular class of car (e.g. the rugged, adventurous type-4X4 vehicle), rather let us consider the implications of vehicle naming conventions and the ways in which these designated “signs” impact our conceptions of space and travel. Then, we will ask ourselves how these signs are complicated, constrained, and mediated by the crowded, built environment in NYC.

The names chosen to identify cars are unique and signify objects that are not always inherently linked to the vehicle itself. Yes, it is true that there are some cars like the Ford Escort, for example, in which the name quite literary explains what the car does, “to guide, protect, or honor its passengers.” But, then there are vehicles like the Toyota Sequoia, in which the word “sequoia” is immediately interpreted in my mind as a type of tree, the giant redwood, not a car. What implication does this then have for the vehicle itself? The stark disconnect formed between object and sign challenges our conceptions of what a tree can be or classified as in our minds. Perhaps we should ask, what qualities of “tree-ness” does a car possess? Does the object-sign (car-name) relationship evoke, in the spirit of Charles Peirce, interpretants of sturdiness or leafiness, greenness or hardness?

We can also explore this concept by thinking about the Hyundai Tiburon, which is translated to mean “shark” in Spanish. Obviously, the car itself is not a shark; the object-sign relationship is again skewed and spawns an unexpected interpretant. What qualities, however, does a shark possess that could be associated with a vehicle? Perhaps, we could argue that they share similar qualities, such as sleekness or the ability to maneuver in a dangerous environment. Perhaps, we make the analogy that the open ocean is like the open road. It is interesting to think about these types of signs existing in NYC and the interpretants generated by such unlikely sign-object relationships. Without knowledge of the associated object, one might ask: what is a shark or a sequoia doing in the middle of NYC? How does this idea of the unexpected interpretant affect city-goers? Is another layer of meaning coated onto the sign “Tiburon” because of its placement in NYC, rather than the open ocean? In what ways might these types of signs mediated or constrained by the built environment in NYC?

An overwhelming number of car names are designated to reference place, generally the name of a place that is not necessarily where you are located geographically or where you plan to go. Parked along the streets of NYC, you may see a Chevy Malibu, Toyota Tacoma, or Hyundai Santa Fe. These are not functional markers of place in the City, although the Buick Park Avenue may be. The word Malibu (sign) invokes an idea or feeling (interpretant) of that particular place (object); yet, where does the car (object) itself fit into this trichotomy? Perhaps, the car is linked by connotation or association to the place, and this is the relational interpretant car-makers hope to evoke in drivers – a feeling of place, a longing to be somewhere you are not.
Many car names are also linked to the concept of the journey, such as the Plymouth Voyager, Nissan Pathfinder, or Ford Explorer. This returns us to the idea of function. If cars are designed to transport us from point A to point B, then this naming convention seems to be a logical one. The name “Explorer” (sign) is linked to the vehicle (object) that evokes the concept of “the journey” (interpretant). What a brilliant move for car-makers and ad men/women! These naming conventions covertly manipulate the desires of those who feel constrained by crowded, bustling, overly geometric, concrete environment of NYC.

-- Katie Caljean

Related Links:

The Legend of the Chevy Nova, http://spanish.about.com/cs/culture/a/chevy_nova.htm

Images credits:



Sunday, October 17, 2010

Controlling Space at Lincoln Center

In a city as busy, as populated, and as spatially challenged as Manhattan, the control of space is critical. There are few vacant lots, no sprawling fields; instead every block on the island has its purpose, and its owner. This is easy enough to see in the case of office buildings, apartment complexes, shopping centers and movie theaters, but how do we apply this to outdoor spaces? New York certainly has its share of public parks, which likewise have their designated purpose and owner, and these provide one kind of alternative to an otherwise dense landscape of glass, steal, and concrete. But Manhattan is filled with pockets of other types of outdoor public spaces, spaces that are far more integrated into the city itself. These are the spaces I am interested in exploring as they fall in the gray area between parks and buildings and the way we are to use these spaces is sometimes not so clear.

Situated at the busy intersection of Broadway and Columbus is Lincoln Center, a performing arts complex that includes the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Ballet, and the Lincoln Center Theater, among others. On occasion I have walked past this complex and admired the spacious courtyard in front of the Met Opera and observed the way it sits back away, and a little above, the rush of traffic, as if with a gesture of quiet contemplation, or perhaps judgment. It is a space that is at once inviting and guarded, with an allure of tranquility that is in part due to that fact that not many people are bold enough to occupy its space. Even when this open space is flooded with people, as it must be on the evenings of popular performances, the people that tread its surface have presumably purchased a ticket to a show and thus feel a sense of purpose in their loitering. How, as city dwellers, do we read such a space? Surely it must be a public space, but does it feel public the way Bryant Park or Rockefeller Center feel public? Perhaps it is more of a private space then, meant to be enjoyed only before and after attending a performance—sort of an outdoor extension of the theater’s lobby?

In The Production of Space, Henri Lefebvre considers the role of architecture as signage in determining the meaning of a space, and while the courtyard in front of the Met Opera is not exactly a building, it is not without its architecture. Standing within the courtyard, the expansive space feels exposed and a little unsettling. There is nowhere to sit and there is nothing much but the fountain in the center to draw one’s gaze. And yet in contrast to this sense of exposure, the space also feels protected by the surrounding theaters, and also pleasantly isolated from the fast-paced city life beyond the courtyard.

Just beyond the Met Opera courtyard, to the right, a very different type of space is created in front of the Lincoln Center Theater. This space is smaller, with a shady grove where people can sit down, a reflecting pool with an abstract sculpture by Henry Moore, and a grassy knoll constructed on the roof of a restaurant. While the only people in the courtyard of the Met Opera were passersby, there only to take a few photos and move on, the courtyard of the Lincoln Center Theater was filled with people enjoying themselves reading, conversing, or out on a family excursion. Perhaps the grassy knoll most clearly represents the idea, and production, of controlled outdoor space. Even with people on it, it almost doesn’t seem quite accessible. Once on top, the ground feels all too smooth and its undulating surface is regular, like a graphed parabola. An imitation of nature planted well within the confines of an architectural construction. Nothing about either of these courtyards is arbitrary, and this shows in the very different ways these spaces are used despite their very similar roles as theater courtyards. How do we respond to architectural cues in spaces with no pre-determined purpose? How predictable is the use of space by members of a society and how else can it be controlled?


references and links:

Lefebvre, Henri. 1991. The Production of Space. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. Oxford and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

Inked in NYC

Walking through the streets of NYC, I’m distracted by a sea of colors. The multitude of skin colors blanketed with the hues of the rainbow. It isn’t hard to notice the vast number of tattooed bodies in New York. I’ve made it a hobby, something to keep me busy on a seemingly never-ending commute, to keep a running tally of the ridiculous, funny, confusing and heartfelt tattoos I see everyday. The skinny jean clad twenty-something I watch exiting the ferry inked with a candy corn on one elbow, and a pretzel on the other. The retired firefighter bearing the artistically rendered words “Never Forget” on his forearm. The 17-year-old kid with a delicate Virgin Mary forever depicted on his bulging bicep.

From the day these nameless few were inked to the day their hearts cease to beat, their body art will be the most enduring physical evidence of their individuality. In a place so crammed with people, I began to consider how inscribing the body functions to appropriate an identity for the individual New Yorker. And conversely, how initiation into “the world of the tattooed” provides a community and sense of belonging in a place that is so crowded, yet isolating for many.

Ostensibly, getting inked is viewed as a sign of a person differentiating his/herself from a cultural body. In this physical process of differentiation however, one also strengthens the bonds of community. Margo DeMello in Bodies of Inscription suggests that as an effect of the image being rendered, the tattoo opens the door for discourse. Subsequently, as the tattoo becomes a talking point in conversation, it is provided a narrative with a social and emotional context (12). These narratives further link to a larger community, as individuals share their experiences of physical pain and a common understanding of what it means to be inked.

Part of my inspiration for writing this piece came from speaking to my friends and family about their own tattoos. More often than not, I found that their tattoos commemorated a person, place, or feeling. Granted there are number of reasons why individuals decide to permanently mark their bodies, but I kept returning to this notion of remembering a particular past. My uncle, a retired FDNY firefighter (featured in the above photo), didn’t have a single tattoo until 9 nine years ago. Now, post 9/11, he is covered in tattoos commemorating New York City and his fallen friends. I couldn’t help but see the irony in my uncle altering his identity by physically shedding his old skin for a psychedelic armor. Perhaps that’s why people get tattoos in New York, to thicken their skins against the harsh elements of the city. I don’t think it’s possible to truly understand peoples’ motivations for inscribing certain images of their bodies. I do think it’s possible however to observe how a place, which can so easily alter our emotions and intellect, can also motivate a metamorphosis of our physical self.

DeMello, Margo. Bodies of Inscription
Sanders, Clinton. Customizing the Body

Funny link: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/loom/tag/archaeology-tattoos/

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Language Assimilation and the Interpretation of Signs

While watching a presentation in class the other day, I was distracted by a sign in the background of a photograph. There was a sign in Chinese characters running down the side of a building. Now I knew that they were Chinese, because the photo was from the edge of China-town, but I found myself first translating it to Japanese before English. I am wholly unfamiliar with the Chinese language but because of the Japanese adoption of Chinese characters, it is possible for me to understand some things in written form. This made me think about a recent article by Lera Boroditsky on how language affects your perception of the world. However, I am more interested in discovering how individuals speaking more than one language interpret the literal signs around them.

New York is a city of approximately 8.4 million people. Out of that, according to a study from Baruch College, 3.9 million inhabitants reportedly speak only English, leaving the majority of the population bi- or multi-lingual (or possibly mono-lingual without English, but this demographic was not mentioned in the data). Of the multiple language speakers, how many use an intermediary language when translating from English to their native language? This might especially apply to individuals from countries with an official language and numerous 'tribal' languages, especially when English is the least familiar of the individual's known languages.

My apartment is near a part of Harlem where there is a large community of Francophone West Africans. Walking down 125th Street you can hear many unfamiliar languages as well as a thick undercurrent of African French. For many, English is the third, fourth, or even fifth language they have had to learn in their lifetimes. What happens in these individual's minds when they are presented with an English word with which they are unfamiliar? Do those who are fluent, or simply familiar with, multiple languages have non-linear methods of translating when the target information has similarities with a tertiary language that it doesn't share with the first language?

Take the word 'bank' for example. In French it is banque, similar in both spelling and pronunciation. In my hypothetical tribal language there would be another word or description for bank that has little or no similarity to either language. It would make sense that this individual encountering a sign for a bank for the first time would utilize the French and English similarities to make a guess at the meaning, rather than simply try to decipher it directly. But what about the image created in the individual's mind? Does it go through a similar transition? For me this brings to mind the notion of the signifier and signified. A signifier in one language may or may not create the same signified image in an individual's mind as a second language. If this is true, how are the images reconciled?

In my own language study I have noticed an interesting transition. When I first began to learn Japanese, I had no signified for words such as ginkoo (bank) and had to think of the English equivalent before I could picture it. As time went on, however, there was a second image that came up when I heard the word, that of a specific banking institution. It was not the same image that came to mind when the word 'bank' was spoken. It existed as its own entity. After much more time had passed, and without my noticing the shift, both my image of ginkoo and 'bank' fused to become a single signified image. So it is now possible for me to look at a sign in Chinese (knowing it is Chinese) and gain the same image I would if it read simply 'bank', without previously knowing the word in Chinese.

What I really want to know is if this is an idiosyncratic method or if multi-lingual individuals have a similar means of language/image assimilation. Although, with at least 4.5 million fellows in the city, I am fairly certain I am not alone.

Saussure, F. - Lectures on General Linguistics
New York City Department of City Planning - 2009 Census
Baruch College - Weissman Center for International Business Zicklin School of Business, NYCdata

Monday, October 11, 2010

Putting the past in its place

We walk up the stone steps and out onto the lawn. The Morris-Jumal mansion appears before us. The first thing that stands out is that it stands out. Surrounded by Washington Heights, only a block from the corner of St. Nicholas Ave and 60th St., the building seems terribly out of place. White painted wooden side-boards cover the exterior, and high columns support a triangular entablature. The color and neoclassical architecture make the building look like a miniature version of the White House. Suddenly I remember having read that George Washington had some connection to the building. I turn to tell Mom and she nods.

There are a few others standing or walking around the lawn. Two men are smoking off to the right, an elderly couple slowly strolls the grounds, and what looks to be a father and his two young children enter the gate after us. Dad walks behind us at first, but soon he over-takes us as Mom stops to read a bronze plaque on the fence. He begins to wander lazily across the lawn, looking but not quite looking. Mom has discovered a new bit of information from the plaque and comes to tell me. We’re outside but she speaks in hushed tones, as if we were in a museum. She continues to walk slowly, alternatively gazing at the building and reading plaques. I walk around the side of the mansion to find where Dad has gone. He’s made it to the other side of the lawn. His back is now almost turned to the mansion. He turns to me as I approach, grins and says “Well?” I mention the George Washington connection. He nods and says “hmm”, then looks away over the ridge that leads down a steep hill covered in rocks and trees.

Eventually Mom finds us. She walks up, smiling. Dad turns to us and says “Ready?” We walk back to the gate and onto the street. Dad is eager to beat the traffic back to Boston, so we say our goodbyes and they drive off.

I have seen this routine before. As children and teenagers my sister and I made many trips with our parents, mostly around New England and upstate New York. But we’ve also gone as far south as St. Augustine and the Everglades in Florida (my mother is from Jacksonville, FL) and as far north as Nova Scotia, Canada (where my father’s family first arrived after leaving Ireland). In all of these places we inevitably end up walking (always slowly) around forts, lighthouses, mansions, churches…anything deemed “historical”.

Mom reads all the plaques, information boards, signposts and brochures. She studies the architecture (her father was a builder and she grew up looking at houses). She creates an understanding of the place and contextualizes it with tidbits from her reading of David McCullough and Howard Zinn. She talks about it, sharing what she finds, and often brings it up again later when we are having lunch or dinner. Dad wanders. He soaks in the atmosphere in a more passive manner. He’s already read about it, or will read about it later.

This experience started me wondering more deeply about how people interact with historical sites, why they act certain ways while there, and, perhaps most importantly, how exactly they know they are at an historical site. As the Morris-Jumal mansion happens to be around the corner from my apartment I decided to start there. A quick Google search brought me to http://www.morrisjumel.org/index.php?sec=home, the mansion’s website. Yes, being a model product of my generation, rather than walk down the street my first inclination was to begin with the internet. However, the website provides some revealing looks into how the keepers of the house would like to portray it to the public. The first piece of information (which continually crops up as you peruse the site) is that this is Manhattan’s oldest house (though not its first). The second piece of information (which is another recurring theme) is that George Washington used the house as his headquarters for a brief period in 1776. The site also advertises regular family events, where visitors (especially children) can come to “experience” colonial life in some activity or another, as well as two separate concert series: one for baroque music and the other for jazz. The baroque series seems designed to recreate the atmosphere of the place in its early years, while the jazz series finds its foundations in the fact that Duke Ellington apparently called the mansion “the crown at the top of Sugar Hill.” Noticeably, neither style would be considered mainstream today. Including a jazz series seems to bring the activities in the mansion just shy of up-to-date; hip but still historical.

Walking over to the mansion, I see a tour group. On other days I have seen such groups walking around the grounds. Aside from the high school students who tend to look fairly bored, by and large people visiting the mansion seem to exhibit a particular set of behaviors. Voices are kept low, even when outside. Some people take pictures, while others seem to stand and stare, breathing deeply. People walk more slowly, as if on sacred ground. Some, like my mother, read the plaques. Everyone seems to know what to do, or at least what they are supposed to do.

How do we know that a place or an object is “historical”? Of course if you dig something up at an archeological site you can carbon date it, compare it to other similar pieces in the archeological record, look for signs of particular artistic styles, and so on. But what makes something a part of “the past” as opposed to “the present”? Looking around my desk, my cell phone, my laptop, my jeans and my Starbucks coffee cup do not call to mind the weight of history. But when I throw on one of my grandfather’s sport coats or hold up my great-uncle’s Air Force Captain’s pin my thoughts turn to a past era. All of these items exist here, now, today. Yet some “feel” a part of history while others “feel” a part of the present.

At the beginning of this piece I mentioned that the mansion stands out. Walk one block in any direction and you are in “New York City: Present Day”. Stand on the grounds of the mansion and you are in “New York City: 1776”. As I also wrote earlier, the façade of the building reminded me of the White House. I have been to the White House, but I did not have the same feeling there that I had at the Morris-Jumal mansion. The White House does not “feel” to me like an historical building. The themes that came more readily to mind when standing on Pennsylvania Ave. were a mix of patriotism, power, politics, some level of skepticism and mistrust…but all firmly rooted in the present. I connect the White House with current issues. I connect the Morris-Jumal mansion with the Revolutionary War. It is a point, a place, fixed in time which I (and others, seemingly) “know” to be historical and which symbolically represents an historical era because it is presented as such.

This begs the question of how we choose to represent the past and what we choose to represent it. What places and things are emblematic of certain peoples and times, and how does that guide our thinking about their societies? How do historical sites and artifacts, as well our decisions about which things fall into these categories, expand and/or limit our ability to reconstruct the past? How do we know history when we see it?

Sunday, October 10, 2010

In keeping with the thread of urban revitalization begun by Matthew below, I would also like to have a look at the changing facades of buildings, in this case the small commercial storefronts that are so typical of New York as a city. In many of the less economically developed neighborhoods, these storefronts generally take the form of such businesses as bodegas, storefront churches, or delis, while more upscale neighborhoods might feature artisans, boutiques, coffeehouses, or boutique artisan coffeehouses. As neighborhoods are "revitalized", a word that to many is merely a euphemism for gentrification, the first group disappears, replaced by the second group.

There is no doubt that the storefronts carry meaning, structuring communities and signifying the consumption patterns of the neighborhood and thus also signaling the spatial demographics. Upscale storefronts also notably communicate a certain desirability to more affluent demographics. As the neighborhood is revitalized, greater numbers of this demographic are attracted both as residents and consumers, increasing the flow of capital into the neighborhood and thus into the city. This has created a particularly contentious point between community advocates, the city, and developers. The city has as yet refused to enact commercial rent control, effectively allowing developers and landlords to force out businesses that may be undesirable in creating a particular image that may be more appealing to consumers. The city benefits not only from the increased flow of capital and the improved neighborhood image but also from the indirect exertion of power in control over space. This tableau also plays out on wider scale, as real estate agents and developers invent new neighborhoods or extend existing ones with more desirable names so as to lure in more affluent residents.

However, a store signifies a normative structure within the current conception of the capitalist system, legitimated by a particular Western view of private property. One might say that if you live by the dollar, you die by the dollar, and the very existence of capitalist spaces structures a neighborhood in a particular way that is amenable to exploitation and so to development. Were spaces constructed within specific cultural context they would resist appropriation in a way that urban storefronts are unable to do.

What is generally not considered by critics of revitalization is the way in which materiality structures culture, thereby structuring cultural spaces. Poor neighborhoods are not simply typified by bodegas and storefront churches but are in large measure constituted by them, both economically and culturally. The spatial incarceration of minority ethnic groups within less affluent neighborhoods creates a population whose labor, and whose cultural and intellectual capital are easily exploitable. Additionally, revitalization in some instances does promote economic and cultural diversity and the residents of affected neighborhoods are by no means unanimously opposed to the new amenities.

The significance of a new upscale storefront thus depends largely on the status of the person interpreting it. Residents and activists may be frustrated by the stark lack of control over their neighborhood and over what in non-legal sense may be regarded as their property, while consumers and prospective residents may be drawn by a space made safe for their consumption, and developers and city politicians will see the new storefronts as signs of economic progress.

Reading Walls in North Brooklyn

I live on the very boarder of East Williamsburg; 3 doors from Bushwick Avenue and the Bushwick neighborhood of North Brooklyn. One of the distinct characteristics of not just this neighborhood, but others in the vicinity (Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Bushwick, and Ridgewood, Queens), as well as quiet residential areas elsewhere in Brooklyn and Queens, is the row houses (Figure 1). As you can see, the row houses in East Williamsburg are particularly uniform in places; modular, I would say. They straddle the line between hideous/charming, but that’s what I love about them.
Like Greenpoint, East Williamsburg has been changing, largely due to these neighborhoods’ geographical proximity to Williamsburg, which has been revitalized over the last 10 years and now contains, among other things, upwards of 100 restaurants and bars, music venues, plentiful shopping, art galleries, and even now a small movie theatre. The development of Williamsburg naturally spread to the surrounding neighborhoods and we are enjoying lots of its fringe benefits on the outskirts.
One result of the impending sea change coming to the East Williamsburg area is the replacement of row houses with larger, taller, more modern buildings, in the form of small condominiums. Ironically, these buildings are often equally so tasteless that they serve as a fitting replacement for the simple row houses of old. But, even in the case of more innovative designs (Figure 2), they still stick out against the modesty of their neighbors.
Unlike the row houses, the neighborhood’s few light industry/warehouse buildings are being spared and rehabbed for commercial and residential use. Their superior constructions (usually brick or concrete) ensure their reuse. One such old warehouse in the neighborhood has for years stood with its paint peeling off the exterior: a marvelous patina that exposed the layers of paint beneath its surface, creating a brittle, flakey, multi-colored skin that spoke of the age of this dignified edifice. The building’s upper floors have been converted into loft-style residences and artist’s studios over the years, while the first couple floors are still home to a light industry of some kind. At the ground level, this warehouse was written all over with graffiti: a testament to generations of taggers and artists, whose own layers of paint mirrored those pealing off of the upper façade (Figure 3). The building even has a peeling piece by the street-artist-turned-art-star, Swoon (on the left in Figure 4).
Late this summer, the façade of the upper floors of the warehouse was refinished and painted with a poor attempt at some shallow trompe-l’oeil effects (Figure 5). The ground level was spared for the time being, but you can see the paint encroaching (Figure 4). On the eve of the day when this urban text is painted over, I find myself wondering: what does it mean?
Indeed, the signs themselves—the graffiti tags—are hard to read. It would require a specialist in urban languages to decipher many of them, especially in their worn state. Once they are painted over, they will cease to communicate at all. Or will they? These only marginally legible signs (and I would contend that even if they were legible, the meaning derived directly from these signs would be minimal: pseudonyms and acronyms without referent) speak volumes within the context of this wall’s stratigraphy. Above the original layers of wall, in a phase of decline, when the walls weren’t painted for many years and became vulnerable to vandals, this layer of urban writing tells a little story about the buildings usage and frequency of habitation, as well as being a visual socio-economic indicator of the neighborhood at large. Wall writing is an iconoclastic act. Its public statement is a form of defiance to the edifice, but it also speaks to and about a community.
The layer of new paint that is being applied to this building will undoubtedly destroy this wall’s message and with it, a chapter in the history of East Williamsburg will be erased. Traces are often difficult for the archaeologist to find in urban contexts. The replenishment of renewal often destroys critical markers of the past. However, wall reading, which has proved a fruitful endeavor in the archaeology of architecture, can provide critical clues, which not only help contextualize archaeological finds, but also lend insight into that character of a community.
As my neighborhood changes, existing walls are reused and take on new meanings. They mirror my community, but in them I can also see the past.
--Matthew Teti, Brooklyn, NY

Monday, October 4, 2010

Virtual Cityscapes

“If you’re looking for what is in reality more real than reality itself,
look into the cinematic fiction”, Slavoj Zizek (The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, 2006)
How do the movies and TV inform and structure our reality? What is the role of fictional representations of places, landscapes, and cityscapes in our actual experiences of them? In what ways are our perceptions of reality affected or generated by virtual things? We have seen a recent emphasis in archaeological theory to look not only at contemporary, but virtual material culture as well (e.g. Harrison 2010). Virtual materiality is especially a relevant subject for the questions of how fictions, media and visual representations shape the ways in which we see and interact with material things in their ‘actuality’. Slavoj Zizek points out that movies play a crucial role in the constitution of our realities, and that this fantasy element of movie fiction is integral and inseparable part of what we call reality. “If you take away from our reality the symbolic fictions that regulate it, you loose reality itself”, he argues in his 2006 documentary The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema.
Godzilla’s approach to contemporary material culture. Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla (1998).
Thinking about Zizek’s ideas on the interplay between the imaginary and the real becomes especially interesting when we look at how a place such as New York City is being perceived in relation to its virtual representations. For all those people visiting the city for the first time, walking around midtown and taking loads of pictures, there is a perspective of pre-experience (or virtual experience), that is, the expectations and knowledge of the place that comes from various media (novels, newspapers, TV, films, etc). In such encounters with the actual materiality of New York City, our ideas, impressions, and experiences are often formed and defined in relation to those virtual experiences that have already been generated through visual and/or textual media. It is to a large extent due to its virtual culture, particularly the one regulated by TV shows and movies, that New York is seen by many as one of the most exciting cities. One hears all too often ‘it’s like in the movies’ type of reactions to NYC, or finds comments on facebook photos such as ‘it’s so Sex and the City!’ It’s also interesting to observe how with facebook, especially with the sharing of photos and comments, our experiences which have already gone through virtual and actual stages, return back again to a virtual medium. Looking at how material things are differently and/or similarly discerned at the levels of our virtual and actual encounters with them could be another interesting question in the archaeological approaches to contemporary materiality.
Franklin J. Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes (1968): A New York story after all.
But going back to Zizek’s ideas about the movie fantasy forming our reality and reflecting our desires, how can we think about these topics in regard to New York City and its representations in the movies? I was especially thinking about the science fiction-horror-apocalyptic type of films that are so often set in New York City, and what could be the connection here with Zizek’s arguments, both in the sense of what makes the city such a frequent choice for the catastrophic and apocalyptic scenarios, and how could we relate this kind of cinematic fantasy with our actual envisioning of the city? What do the movies like Escape from New York, Godzilla, Armageddon, The Day After Tomorrow, King Kong, Cloverfield, I Am Legend, and others, reveal about our imaginary worlds and how do such fantasies connect with the real world? Where does the virtual New York City meet with the actual one? In its virtual space, the city has had difficult times avoiding meteors, floods, glaciations, aliens, giant apes, monsters of all sort, etc. Whereas in our actual New York City experiences we might not witness the same kind of movie-awesomeness (that is, if one finds Godzilla talking a stroll down Manhattan to be an awesome sight indeed), the more subtle links between the fictive and actual New York cityscapes still remain apparent.
-- Petar
Harrison, R. 2010 Exorcising the ‘plague of fantasies’: mass media and archaeology’s role in the present; or why we need an archaeology of ‘now’. World Archaeology 42(3): 328-340.
Related links: 20 Movies That Destroy New York: http://www.premiere.com/Feature/20-Movies-That-Destroy-New-York

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Multiple Identities

For two weeks every year, at about the same time that the city’s university population swells with the return of vacationing students, the tennis world descends upon New York. Around the city, lampposts, buses and billboards are covered with the products of the year’s latest ad campaign. Ball boys, umpires, and linesmen will be chosen while cooks, vendors, cleaning crews, and security are all hired to prepare for one of tennis' top four major championships, the U.S. Open. Over the fortnight over three-hundred of the world’s best tennis players, and upwards of 700,000 tennis fans (712,976 this year to be exact) make the trip to USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens. The center’s main stadium Arthur Ashe will be the main focus of numerous television broadcasts which will undoubtedly catch a glimpse of the occasional celebrity and perhaps the even more elusive head-of-state.
Yet among the hoopla of these two weeks, few realize that it is merely that, two weeks. The site of the National Tennis Center serves its main and primary purpose for just fourteen days. After the final match on the last Sunday of the tournament most of the fans and players will leave not only the stadium, but New York as well, returning to homes as far as Sydney and Tokyo (the winners of the men's and women's events this year took their trophies home to Spain and Belgium respectively). Ninety-five percent of the time the center is technically merely another public tennis facility distinguished from others simply by its size and illustrious history and kept in the minds of only a small segment of New Yorkers.
I was lucky enough to actually go to the U.S. open this semester and while I was there it occurred to me how odd of a place this must be for an archaeologist. If for some reason all of New York was abandoned and rediscovered thousands of years from now, how would one conceptualize a place such as this? The population that uses the site is not representative of the people that live nearby year-round. Unlike other sports stadiums in the U.S. the USTA National Tennis Center does not showcase a domestic league, meaning that a greater segment of the people attending the Open are not native to Queens nor to the United States. Of the many people I encountered on my visits I heard a large portion speaking a different language and I heard many accents hinting at multilingualism, or at least foreign origin (such as the boisterous Australian Samantha Stosur fans whom we could hear sitting clear on the opposite side of the stadium) in the remaining portion.
In a sense it is fitting that the center is located at the old World's Fair grounds since for these two weeks it hosts once again the world's talent. Yet also like the World's Fair the majority of its time is spent catering to secondary purposes not necessarily intended by its original creators. Throughout the year these courts will be stepped on by the feet of more amateurs than professionals, and perhaps for this reason I was wrong in saying earlier that the U.S. Open is the site's "main and primary purpose". Perhaps I should have simply said "primary intended function."
In terms of use throughout the course of year one could argue that the primary function of the site is as a public tennis facility, yet one must excuse the mistake since the money and attention spent there during the US Open fortnight can lead us to different conclusions. Which conclusion would one make from the archaeological record at this site though? Probably a mix of both. So, then how should the archaeologists of the future look at this place? How should he or she "read" the large parking lot and massive stadium, obviously signs of a large event, with the trash and lost items of the local New Yorkers that use the facility all the time? Would we create some kind of hybrid scenario in our minds or is there some way in which we could accurately capture a picture of this place's dual life?
- Shane