The Meadowlands

I’ve just finished reading The Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures on the Edge of a City by Robert Sullivan, a book perfectly discussed in the visual context of Meadowlands, a collection of photographs by Joshua Lutz (for which Sullivan actually wrote an introduction).

[Image: From Meadowlands by Joshua Lutz].

“Just five miles west of New York City,” the back cover of Sullivan’s book reads, are the Meadowlands: “this vilified, half-developed, half-untamed, much dumped-on, and sometimes odiferous tract of swampland is home to rare birds and missing bodies, tranquil marshes and a major sports arena, burning garbage dumps and corporate headquarters, the remains of the original Penn Station, and maybe, just maybe, of the late Jimmy Hoffa.” It is “mysterious ground that is not yet guidebooked,” Sullivan writes inside, “where European landscape painters once set up their easels to paint the quiet tidal estuaries and old cedar swamps,” but where, now, “there are real hills in the Meadowlands and there are garbage hills. The real hills are outnumbered by the garbage hills.”

Lutz’s book describes the region as a “32-square-mile stretch of sweeping wilderness that evokes morbid fantasies of Mafia hits and buried remains.” As Lutz explained in a 2008 interview with Photoshelter, “When I first saw the Meadowlands I was completely blown away at this vast open space with the Manhattan skyline in the distance. It was this space that existed between spaces, somewhere between urban and suburban all the while made up of swamps, towns and intersecting highways. None of it made any sense to me, still doesn’t.”

All told, the area has become, Sullivan writes, “through negligence, through exploitation, and through its own chaotic persistence, explorable again.”

[Images: The Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures on the Edge of a City by Robert Sullivan and Meadowlands by Joshua Lutz].

To write his book, Sullivan went on a series of explorations through the Meadowlands, including by canoe and in the company of a former police detective.

While there are definitely some moments of rhetorical over-kill, the book is so filled with interesting details that it proved very hard to stop reading; in between learning about the “discharged liquefied animal remains” that were dumped into the region’s streams and rivers, or the “major pet company and Meadowlands development firm” that “drove so many steel girders into the ground that people joked Secaucus would become a new magnetic pole,” or even the old—and, unfortunately, forgotten—mine shafts that began swallowing a development called the Schuyler Condominiums, Sullivan’s book, like any good and truly local history, builds to a level of narrative portraiture that is as braided and fractally involuted as the wetlands it documents.

[Image: From Meadowlands by Joshua Lutz].

For instance, Sullivan discovers a flooded radio transmission room, “its giant antenna felled in the water like a child’s broken toy,” as well as “little islands, composed wholly of reeds,” one of which, in the middle of soggy nowhere and accessible only by boat, was “surrounded by bright yellow police emergency tape: CAUTION, the tape said.”

Relating the litany of pollutions that exist in the swamps, he guides the reader’s eye toward ponds of cyanide, truckloads of “unregulated medical waste,” and soil so thoroughly contaminated with mercury that, “as recently as 1980, it was possible to dig a hole in the ground and watch it fill with balls of shiny silvery stuff.”

This might even have affected the New York Giants football team after they moved into Meadowlands Stadium: “In the mid-1980s, playing football in the Meadowlands meant possibly risking your life, because shortly after the stadium opened players for the Giants began developing cancer… ‘Players complained of occasionally foul-smelling water, and the high incidence of leukemia in adjacent Rutherford…'” No official medical link was either admitted or found. Indeed, certain streams are really a kind of “garbage juice”—an “espresso of refuse,” as Sullivan nauseatingly describes it.

In many places, the so-called ground is, in fact, trash—so much so that “underground fires are still common today… you can see little black holes where the hills have recently burped hot gases or fire… huge underground plumes of carbon dioxide and of warm moist methane, giant stillborn tropical winds that seep through the ground to feed the Meadowlands’ fires, or creep up into the atmosphere,” forming a particularly Dantean local climatology of reeking crosswinds. One of these fires “burned for fifteen years.”

[Image: Bow-hunting amidst the reeds, from Meadowlands by Joshua Lutz].

The Meadowlands are, after all, a massive dump, more landfill than landscape. The effect, though, is a kind of new picturesque, an engineered sublime of artificial hills, deltaic chemical accumulants, cheap hotels overlooking it all on the periphery, and even entire lost buildings buried beneath three centuries of dumping. “If you put a shovel anywhere into the ground and dig just about anywhere in the Meadowlands,” Sullivan writes, “it won’t be long until you hit rubble from a building that was once somewhere else.”

In Kearny, one old dump contains pieces of what was once Europe. In 1941, under the auspices of the Lend-Lease Act, shipments of defense equipment went from the United States to Great Britain by boat. On their return trip, the boats used rubble from London bombings as ballast. William Keegan, a Kearny dump owner, contracted to accept the ballast. As a result, some of the hills of the Kearny Meadows are London Hills.

This is actually also true for New York’s FDR Drive, which is partially constructed on British war ruins used as fill.

[Image: An awesomely sinister photo from Meadowlands by Joshua Lutz].

There is an amazing chapter about mosquito control in the region, something I want to return to in a future post someday; another about treasure hunters on a quest for Revolutionary War-era gold and silver; and another about the construction of the hulking and monumental Pulaski Skyway. Before that oddly tunnel-like, 3.5-mile, elevated roadway was built, “ferries and sailboats took passengers from New York to Newark via Jersey City,” but, like something out of a Terry Gilliam film, “it was not unusual for papers to report that a ship making the trip had been blown out to sea and never been seen again.”

I could go on and on. There is even an entire subplot in which Sullivan hunts down the buried remains of New York’s Penn Station.

I want to end, though, with something said by the retired police detective who takes Sullivan under his wing on a series of driving tours toward the end of the book. When Sullivan asks the former investigator if he misses his job, the response is intelligent, thoughtful, and extraordinary. I’ll quote it in full:

“I miss it to this day, to this minute,” he said. “And do you know why? Because it takes you a long time to accumulate the knowledge.”
He pointed out the car. “Like for instance,” he continued, “look over there at that building, that warehouse. See how one door is open and one door looks like it’s closed up. Now, what I’ll do is store that. Keep it in my head. And see that sign over there in front of that building? You remember that. You remember that because you may need it someday. It may be useful. You accumulate the knowledge. Do you see what I mean? And then all of a sudden you’re supposed to just stop.”
He shook his head and started the car moving again, driving slowly up out of the swamp, up the hill. “The thing is, you just can’t,” he said.

This hermeneutic attention to everyday details—through which open warehouse doors or unusually parked cars all become raw data accumulated over decades for use in some later, possibly never-to-occur narrative dissection—is exactly the task not only of the detective but of the writer, and of anyone who would attempt to study an existing landscape in order to uncover its most unexpected and far-reaching implications.

In any case, together with Lutz’s photos of the region and its very particular anthropology—which Lutz discusses in an interview with Conscientious, remarking that the Meadowlands are “an astonishing mixture of towns, swamps, trains, motels and an amazing array of bisecting highways all trying to keep you out”—both books have been invigorating encounters over the past week or two, and each is worth checking out if you get the chance.

Pieces of the city are forming, like islands

[Image: “Shopping mall parking lot, Dubai,” (2009) by Bas Princen].

Photographer Bas Princen has a fantastic new exhibition, called “Refuge,” up at Storefront for Art and Architecture. Tonight, Tuesday, May 11, Princen will be at the gallery for a public event and opening, and it’s well worth checking out.

Storefront describes the show as a “photographic fiction”:

Although it is the result of extensive travels and research in five cities of the Middle East and Turkey—Istanbul, Beirut, Amman, Cairo and Dubai—it could just as easily pass as the pictorial record of a dérive through a single, imaginary city: a city without a center, populated by extraordinary and at times implausible architectural artefacts; an urban laboratory whose physical traits are defined by migratory flows, spatial transformation and geopolitical flux on a continental scale.

[Image: “Cooling plant, Dubai,” (2009) by Bas Princen].

As part of a poster published in tandem with the exhibition, former Storefront director Joseph Grima interviewed Princen about his work, starting off with an inquiry into how Princen’s own background in architectural studies might have affected his photographic approach to the built and natural environments (the interview is also available at Domus).

[Image: “Sand ridge, Amman,” (2009) by Bas Princen].

Princen remarks that, for him, “the camera [is] a tool to construct ideas on space or places, or ideas on architecture and landscape.” For “Refuge,” in particular, he explains that:

My main objective with this project was to create a series of photographs in which Amman, Beirut, Cairo, Dubai and Istanbul disappear as individual cities and as specific places, dissolving instead into a new kind of city, an imaginary urban entity in formation. This premise directed me to specific places in the periphery where pieces of the city are forming, almost like islands, and this accounts for my interest in the refugee camps and gated communities.

Zeroing in specifically on the architecture, Grima then asks him about “the ubiquity of the modernist reinforced-concrete slab-and-column structure,” a construction technique clearly visible in the photographs reproduced here.

[Images: “Former sugarcane field, Cairo,” (2009) and “Ringroad, Cairo,” (2009) by Bas Princen].

Grima suggests that, as a tactic for assembling buildings, this construction technique is “strongly reminiscent of Le Corbusier’s Maison Domino.” Princen’s response is brilliant, and worth quoting at length:

It is fascinating that Maison Domino, the quintessential modernist prototype conceived as a universal answer to the housing problem, has in the end inspired the method of choice for informal construction, with or without the help of architects. The many interpretations of the famous Maison Domino prototype I’ve seen are a clear indication that is has become the most universally successful type of construction, but nothing prepared me for Cairo, where this structural system is really pushed to the limits—not only because these buildings in red-brick-and-concrete grids rise to 16 or 17 floors, but also because three quarters of the city is constructed in this way. It is a mesmerizing fictional experience: driving on an elevated highway through this city of red brick towers, trying to imagine who is actually living there.

This latter remark—Princen’s difficulty in imagining these sorts of landscape humanly inhabited—sets the stage for a remark, later in the interview, when Princen mentions that he attempts to maintain a human presence in his photographs—in other words, they are not anthropologically empty landscapes.

[Images: “Mokkatam Ridge (garbage recycling city), Cairo,” (2009) by Bas Princen].

He adds that “the so-called ‘middle distance'”—the scale inhabited by humans—”has not been used much in recent architectural photography,” an industry that tends now to focus on one of two extremes: “the architectural object on the one hand and the cityscape on the other.” But “it is exactly in this middle distance,” Princen counters, “that the human figure becomes an interesting element: it cannot be shown as the main subject, but will always be defined by the relationship with its surroundings, to put an extra meaning or layer on the landscape or object that is photographed.”

As a result, Princen’s photos show us diminutive humans, stranded amidst incomprehensible architectural forms and massive landscapes, neither urban nor rural, pursuing admirably self-directed goals through which to give themselves meaning or, depending on how you look at it, utterly vacuous tasks that they refuse to admit should be abandoned.

[Images: Spreads from “Refuge” by Bas Princen].

Princen has rapidly become one of my favorite photographers; his earlier work, for instance, collected in the stunning Artificial Arcadia, shows, in Grima’s words, “the contemporary landscape as something invariably artificial, even when there is no sign of human intervention.”

What this means, more concretely, is that the book documents transitional landscapes scattered here and there around the Netherlands: “future suburbs,” highway overpass construction sites deep in forested housing estates, thickets planted for no ecological reason other than to block the sounds of a nearby airfield—landscapes that are at once highly abstract, yet ingeniously colonized by the local residents who have turned them into 4×4 race tracks, kite-flying grounds, fishing ponds, sites for paintball tournaments, and more.

They are also landscapes that have been generated, as if unconsciously, by industrial processes seated and operating elsewhere; as such, Princen shows us clay and sand depots, harbor excavation sites, and dumping grounds for contaminated silt and soil. But then, there, on top of those strange landforms, built on no recognizable human scale, there are weekend nature enthusiasts with their cameras out, stalking rare insects and birds that have settled these disrupted terrains.

The book, frankly, is pretty incredible. Take the “acoustic forest”: as mentioned above, it is a landscape “maintained to cushion the noise of a military base and airfield,” showing us an artificial ecosystem as military-sonic camouflage, like something out of Nick Sowers‘s research.

It’s the small humanist flips, however, that interest me so much; a sand dyke, for example, built ostensibly for the same purpose as above, “to shield a new housing estate from the noise of a military airfield,” but that has since been transformed into a communal meeting place where “residents gather on the sand dyke to watch the planes.”

[Images: Spreads from Artificial Arcadia by Bas Princen].

These makeshift, highly unexpected communities—such as model-airplane enthusiasts hanging out together in remote hardware store parking lots—are rampant throughout Artificial Arcadia and, indeed, Bas Princen’s work altogether. One of the most intriguing examples of this is the site of a new highway being constructed through forested suburbs; far from the paving stage, however, it is simply a muddy scar through the trees, looking more like a landslide, with no actual sense that the construction crews are even coming back to finish it. It is, Princen explains, “a 30-km long highway construction site, cutting through forests and farmlands, skirting villages,” that has since become “a gathering place,” like a piazza or churchyard.

The back of the book states that Princen is interested in documenting “the complex qualities that construct contemporary landscape, such as accessibility, wind direction, water currents and communication networks. In addition the use of certain products, such as kites, mountain bikes and GPS monitors, has a bearing on the way in which landscape is understood.” The landscape is instrumentalized, we might say, distilled through dense layers of technological abstraction to become, once again, a place inhabitable by human activity, however pathetic or impressively persistent it might be.

[Image: “Valley, Beirut,” (2009) by Bas Princen, from “Refuge“].

In any case, the exhibition opening tonight, May 11, at Storefront for Art and Architecture—where Bas Princen will be present in the gallery to kick things off and answer questions—features only his work for “Refuge,” but it promises to be one of the more compelling photography shows in New York this year.

Cities Under Siege

[Image: Stephen Graham’s Cities Under Siege].

In a 2003 paper for the Naval War College Review, author Richard J. Norton defined the term feral cities. “Imagine a great metropolis covering hundreds of square miles,” Norton begins, as if narrating the start of a film pitch. “Once a vital component in a national economy, this sprawling urban environment is now a vast collection of blighted buildings, an immense petri dish of both ancient and new diseases, a territory where the rule of law has long been replaced by near anarchy in which the only security available is that which is attained through brute power.”

With the city’s infrastructure having collapsed long ago—or perhaps having never been built in the first place—there are no works of public sanitation, no sewers, no licensed doctors, no reliable food supply, no electricity. The feral city is a kind of return to medievalism, we might say, back to the future of a dark age for anyone but criminals, gangs, and urban warlords. It is a space of illiterate power—strength unresponsive to rationality or political debate.

From the perspective of a war planner or soldier, the feral city is also spatially impenetrable, a maze resistant to aerial mapping. Indeed, its “buildings, other structures, and subterranean spaces, would offer nearly perfect protection from overhead sensors, whether satellites or unmanned aerial vehicles,” Norton writes.

This is something Russell W. Glenn, formerly of the RAND Corporation—an Air Force think tank based in Southern California—calls “combat in Hell.” In his 1996 report of that name, Glenn pointed out that “urban terrain confronts military commanders with a synergism of difficulties rarely found in other environments,” many of which are technological. For instance, the effects of radio communications and global positioning systems can be radically limited by dense concentrations of architecture, turning what might otherwise be an exotic experience of pedestrian urbanism into a claustrophobic labyrinth inhabited by unseen enemy combatants.

Add to this the fact that military ground operations of the near future are more likely to unfold in places like Sadr City, Iraq—not in paragons of city planning like Vancouver—and you have an environment in which soldiers are as likely to die from tetanus, rabies, and wild dog attacks, Norton suggests, as from actual armed combat.

Put another way, as Mike Davis wrote in Planet of Slums, “the cities of the future, rather than being made out of glass and steel as envisioned by earlier generations of urbanists, are instead largely constructed out of crude brick, straw, recycled plastic, cement blocks, and scrap wood. Instead of cities of light soaring toward heaven, much of the twenty-first-century urban world squats in squalor, surrounded by pollution, excrement, and decay.”

But feral cities are one thing, cities under siege are something else.

[Images: The Fires by Joe Flood and Planet of Slums by Mike Davis].

In his new book Cities Under Siege, published just two weeks ago, geographer Stephen Graham explores “the extension of military ideas of tracking, identification and targeting into the quotidian spaces and circulations of everyday life,” including “dramatic attempts to translate long-standing military dreams of high-tech omniscience and rationality into the governance of urban civil society.” This is just part of a “deepening crossover between urbanism and militarism,” one that will only become more pronounced, Graham fears, over time.

One particularly fascinating example of this encroachment of “military dreams… into the governance of urban civil society” is actually the subject of a forthcoming book by Joe Flood. The Fires tells the story of “an alluring proposal” offered by the RAND Corporation, back in 1968, “to a city on the brink of economic collapse [New York City]: using RAND’s computer models, which had been successfully implemented in high-level military operations, the city could save millions of dollars by establishing more efficient public services.” But all did not go as planned:

Over the next decade—a time New York City firefighters would refer to as “The War Years”—a series of fires swept through the South Bronx, the Lower East Side, Harlem, and Brooklyn, gutting whole neighborhoods, killing more than two thousand people and displacing hundreds of thousands. Conventional wisdom would blame arson, but these fires were the result of something altogether different: the intentional withdrawal of fire protection from the city’s poorest neighborhoods—all based on RAND’s computer modeling systems.

In any case, Graham’s interest is in the city as target, both of military operations and of political demonization. In other words, cities themselves are portrayed “as intrinsically threatening or problematic places,” Graham writes, and thus feared as sites of economic poverty, moral failure, sexual transgression, rampant criminality, and worse (something also addressed in detail by Steve Macek’s book Urban Nightmares). All cities, we are meant to believe, already exist in a state of marginal ferality. I’m reminded here of Frank Lloyd Wright’s oft-repeated remark that “the modern city is a place for banking and prostitution and very little else.”

In some of the book’s most interesting sections, Graham tracks the growth of urban surveillance and the global “homeland security market.” He points out that major urban events—like G8 conferences, the Olympics, and the World Cup, among many others—offer politically unique opportunities for the installation of advanced tracking, surveillance, and facial-recognition technologies. Deployed in the name of temporary security, however, these technologies are often left in place when the event is over: a kind of permanent crisis, in all but name, takes over the city, with remnant, military-grade surveillance technologies gazing down upon the streets (and embedded in the city’s telecommunications infrastructure). A moment of exception becomes the norm.

Graham outlines a number of dystopian scenarios here, including one in which “swarms of tiny, armed drones, equipped with advanced sensors and communicating with each other, will thus be deployed to loiter permanently above the streets, deserts, and highways” of cities around the world, moving us toward a future where “militarized techniques of tracking and targeting must permanently colonize the city landscape and the spaces of everyday life.”

In the process, any real distinction between a “homeland” and its “colonies” is irreparably blurred. Here, he quotes Michel Foucault: “A whole series of colonial models was brought back to the West, and the result was that the West could practice something resembling colonization, or an internal colonialism, on itself.” If it works in Baghdad, the assumption goes, then let’s try it out in Detroit.

This is just one of many “boomerang effects” from militarized urban experiments overseas, Graham writes.

[Images: Blast walls in Iraq].

But what does this emerging city—this city under siege—actually look like? What is its architecture, its urban design, its local codes? What is its infrastructure?

Graham has many evocative answers for this. The city under siege is a place in which “hard, military-style borders, fences and checkpoints around defended enclaves and ‘security zones,’ superimposed on the wider and more open city, are proliferating.”

Jersey-barrier blast walls, identity checkpoints, computerized CCTV, biometric surveillance and military styles of access control protect archipelagos of fortified social, economic, political or military centers from an outside deemed unruly, impoverished and dangerous. In the most extreme examples, these encompass green zones, military prisons, ethnic and sectarian neighborhoods and military bases; they are growing around strategic financial districts, embassies, tourist and consumption spaces, airport and port complexes, sports arenas, gated communities and export processing zones.

Cities Under Siege also extensively covers urban warfare, a topic that intensely interests me. From Graham’s chapter “War Re-Enters the City”:

Indeed, almost unnoticed within “civil” urban social science, a shadow system of military urban research is rapidly being established, funded by Western military research budgets. As Keith Dickson, a US military theorist of urban warfare, puts it, the increasing perception within Western militaries is that “for Western military forces, asymmetric warfare in urban areas will be the greatest challenge of this century… The city will be the strategic high ground—whoever controls it will dictate the course of future events in the world.”

Ralph Peters phrased this perhaps most dramatically when he wrote, back in 1996 for the U.S. Army War College Quarterly, that “the future of warfare lies in the streets, sewers, high-rise buildings, industrial parks, and the sprawl of houses, shacks, and shelters that form the broken cities of our world.” The future of warfare, that is, lies in feral cities.

In this context, Graham catalogs the numerous ways in which “aggressive physical restructuring,” as well as “violent reorganization of the city,” is used, and has been used throughout history, as a means of securing and/or controlling a city’s population. At its most extreme, Graham calls this “place annihilation.” The architectural redesign of cities can thus be used as a military policing tactic as much as it can be discussed as a topic in academic planning debates. There are clearly echoes of Eyal Weizman in this.

On one level, these latter points are obvious: small infrastructural gestures, like public lighting, can transform alleyways from zones of impending crime to walkways safe for pedestrian use—and, in the process, expand political control and urban police presence into that terrain. But, as someone who does not want to be attacked in an alleyway any time soon, I find it very positive indeed when the cityscape around me becomes both safer by design and better policed. Equally obvious, though, when these sorts of interventions are scaled-up—from public lighting, say, to armed checkpoints in a militarized reorganization of the urban fabric—then something very drastic, and very wrong, is occurring in the city. Instead of a city simply with more cops (or fire departments), you begin a dark transition toward a “city under siege.”

I could go on at much greater length about all of this—but suffice it to say that Cities Under Siege covers a huge array of material, from the popularity of SUVs in cities to the blast-wall geographies of Baghdad, from ASBOs in London to drone helicopters in the skies above New York. Raytheon’s e-Borders program opens the book, and Graham closes it all with a discussion of “countergeographies.”

(Parts of this post, on feral cities, originally appeared in AD: Architectures of the Near Future, edited by Nic Clear).

Blackout

[Image: From The Night the Lights Went Out by the staff of the New York Times].

I’ll be leading a research seminar at the Pratt Institute’s School of Architecture this coming spring. I’ve decided to post the general course description here, simply because I think it might be of interest; I’m really looking forward to exploring this more in the spring.

BLACKOUT: Failures of Power and The City

In this guided research seminar we will look at blackouts—the total loss of electrical power and its impact on the built environment. From the blackouts of NYC in 1965 and 1977 to the complete blackout of the northeast in August 2003; from the “rolling blackouts” of Enron-era California to the flickering electrical supplies of developing economies; from terrorist attacks on physical infrastructure to aerial bombing campaigns in Iraq and beyond; loss of power affects millions of people, urban and rural, worldwide.

[Image: From The Night the Lights Went Out by the staff of the New York Times].

But how do blackouts also affect the form, function, social experience, and even ecology of the city? What do blackouts do to infrastructure—from hospitals to police and traffic systems—as well as to the cultural lives of a city’s residents? While blackouts can lead to a surge in crime and looting, they can also catalyze informal concerts, sleep-outs, and neighborhood festivities. Further, how do such things as “dark sky” regulations transform what we know as nighttime in the city—and how does the temporary disappearance of electrical light change the city for species other than humans? This raises a final point: before electricity, cities at night presented a fundamentally different spatio-cultural experience. That is, the pre-industrial night was always blacked-out (something to consider when we read that, according to the International Energy Agency, nearly 25% of the global human population currently lacks access to electricity).

We will look at multiple examples of blackouts—internationally and throughout history—exploring what caused them, what impacts they had, and what spatial opportunities exist for architects in a blacked-out city. On the one hand, we might ask: how do we make the city more resilient against future failures of electrical power? But, on the other: how might we take advantage of blackouts for a temporary re-programming of the city?

City of Gold

Gold—the price of which has nearly quadrupled over the past decade—is now being purchased (and hoarded) on such a massive scale that the vaults of New York City have run out of space to store it all in.

[Image: Stackin’ it at the Federal Reserve Bank in New York City].

The Wall Street Journal reports this week that “fleets of armored trucks piled with gold bars and coins have been streaming out of midtown Manhattan” in a mass movement, perhaps geologically comparable to a landslide, of financialized minerals.

HSBC has apparently “issued an edict that it wanted retail investors to remove their bullion to make space for big institutional customers,” The First Post adds, and so “owners of vaults and warehouses across the United States have had to jump to action.” However, removing gold from the basements of New York City is “easier said than done,” they add—especially as it requires “something approaching a military operation” to get these huge quantities of extraordinarily valuable metal off the island.

The headline sums it up: “Armored trucks leave NYC ‘loaded with gold‘.”

“I have never seen any relocation like this,” says the managing director of FideliTrade. Except, of course, in Die Hard with a Vengeance

[Image: The solid gold walls of the U.S. Bullion Depository at Ft. Knox].

In fact, some massive new gold heist film should now be forced into production, set in the over-securitized labyrinth of vaults beneath a skyscraper in midtown, a kind of post-Italian-Job-remake example of urban super-thievery, complete with glimpses of the complicated overlapping spatial histories of an earlier island geography, from New York’s forgotten underground rivers (which our criminals could perhaps scuba-dive through) to inexplicable brick walls (bumped up against where the robbers’ maps only show mud). A small baroque pavilion in Central Park could be involved, or perhaps huge rooms of subsurface shelving deep beneath the New York Public Library where CGI-friendly radar equipment could be tested by our future perpetrators.

(Original gold story spotted by Steve Silberman).

The Tree Museum

Note: This is a guest post by Nicola Twilley.

Every tree is a living archive, its rings a record of rainfall, temperature, atmosphere, fire, volcanic eruption, and even solar activity. These arboreal archives together reach back in time over centuries, sometimes millennia. We can even map human history through them—and onto them—tracing famines, plagues, and the passing of our own lives.

[Image: A scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s film Vertigo, with Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak in Muir Woods, outside San Francisco, where Novak points to the concentric rings of the redwood trunk and says, “Here I was born… and here I died”].

For artist Katie Holten, trees were thus the natural starting point for an oral history of a city street in the Bronx. To mark the 100th anniversary of the Grand Concourse, a four-mile-long boulevard that connects Manhattan to the parks of the Northern Bronx, Holten has created the Tree Museum: 100 specially-chosen trees between 138th Street and Mosholu Parkway, each of which has a story to tell if you dial the number at its base.

The museum opens today, June 21, with a parade and street fair: for those of us not in New York, a podcast and brochure will be available for download, and you also can view each of the tree locations on Google Maps.

[Image: Trees in the museum each have their own sidewalk marker, which gives their name and extension number].

Only a handful of the one hundred “story-trees” date from the Concourse’s construction, when an avenue of Norwegian maples was planted to shade carriages and pedestrians strolling along the broad boulevard. In an email conversation, Holten explained to BLDGBLOG that most of these original trees were moved to Pelham Bay Park when the B/D subway line was built in the early ’30s. Twelve of the surviving maples are joined in the Tree Museum by representatives of fifty-nine other tree species, from an Amur Corktree in Joyce Kilmer park to a Kentucky Coffeetree just south of Tremont Avenue.

In fact, each tree is carefully identified by its species name, in Spanish, English, and Latin, to draw museum visitors’ attention to their variety. Holten told me that, early on in her community outreach, she realized how important naming the trees would be when a teacher in a local school confessed, incredibly, that it was only after he heard about the Tree Museum idea that “he noticed the next time he was walking that there were different kinds of trees. Before that he’d thought they were just ‘trees’.”

[Image: A section of the Tree Museum map; a much larger version can be seen here].

The trees were chosen for their variety, Holten says, but also for “location, age, and connection to a particular person or story.” Holten acted as matchmaker, pairing trees with former and current Bronx residents, as well as scientists, authors, and activists who have worked in the area. Among the 100 participants are well-known former Bronxites DJ Jazzy Jay and Daniel Libeskind, students at the Bronx Writing Academy, and Jonathan Pywell, Bronx Senior Forester, who helped Holten identify all the trees (not an easy task in mid-winter). Each has used their tree as the starting point for a personal anecdote, snippet of neighborhood history, song, or even a digital sound recording.

Taken together, the tree stories are part shared history, part personal memory, part science lesson—they form what Holten describes as “the whole ecosystem of the street.”

[Image: A computer-generated image of Klaus Lackner’s prototype “synthetic tree,” which would remove carbon dioxide directly from the air; image courtesy of Columbia University].

In her email, Holten went into some detail describing the range of stories you can hear as you dial each tree’s extension, from the sound of a Puerto Rican tree frog (No.73, a Gingko) to a local preservationist describing how he fought to turn an abandoned lot into the park that now surrounds No. 100, a Cottonwood. From her email:

Klaus Lackner (professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering at Columbia University and director of the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy) tells the story of the carbon cycle and his attempt to create a “fake plastic tree,” or air extractor, that would suck the CO2 out of the air and convert it into something we can put in a safe place. Eric Sanderson (a landscape ecologist based at the Bronx Zoo, and author of Mannahatta) needed a really old, native tree to talk about projecting the landscape backwards. I gave him No. 9, a beautiful American Elm outside Cardinal Hayes High School.

At the northern end of the Concourse, at 206th St, there’s a huge chunk of rock between two buildings; it’s like the side of a cliff. I had to give the tree there, No. 95, to Sid Horenstein, a geologist who recently retired from the American Museum of Natural History. He’s able to use the rock outcrop to explain the story of what the Concourse lies above—it was built on a ridge and that’s one of the main reasons the street was constructed here, because it was elevated and offered spectacular views of the countryside all around.

And Tree No. 45, a Little Leaf Linden, has a story told by Patricia Foody, a 95-year-old Bronxite. She remembers her dad bringing her for a walk to the Concourse to visit his brother’s tree in just this location—it was one of the original maples, and many of them had plaques for soldiers who had died in World War I.

Some of the stories come from people who work with the trees directly: Jennifer Greenfeld, director of Street Tree Planting for the Parks and Recreation department, uses No. 66, a Chinese Elm, to provide an overview of street trees throughout New York City and the policy battles they sometimes cause. Barbara Barnes, a landscape architect also with the Parks department, puts her tree in the context of the historic street tree canopy project she’s working on, to replant Joyce Kilmer and Franz Sigel parks as they were originally laid out.

[Image: Eric Sanderson pointing at a map of the Bronx; photo by Katie Holten].

For other participants, the trees function as more of a backdrop for personal history and community activism. Sabrina Cardenales is the real-life model for the character Mercedes in Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx, which documents extreme urban poverty in New York: both Sabrina and Adrian introduce themselves and read a passage from the book as part of the Tree Museum. Meanwhile, Majora Carter, an environmental justice activist and MacArthur fellow from the south Bronx, uses tree No. 6, a honey locust, to tell people: “You don’t have to leave your neighborhood to live in a better one, and trees are an important part of making that happen.”

The variety of voices and stories Holten describes accumulate into a sense that plenty of people really do care about these trees, this street, and the Bronx in general. They also act as a series of nudges to look at the urban landscape in a new light. The result is that the Tree Museum, at least in theory, will recreate some of the optimism of the Grand Concourse’s roots in the City Beautiful movement, while not glossing over the struggles and setbacks faced by the “Champs-Élysées of the Bronx” ever since.

[Image: The Bronx Grand Concourse, looking north from 161st Street; photo by Katie Holten].

As part of the Concourse’s centenary celebrations, the Bronx Museum and New York’s Design Trust For Public Space are running a competition called Intersections: Grand Concourse Beyond 100, to gather new proposals for regenerating the street. Although the call for entries period is now closed, Katie Holten has set up a community forum for the Tree Museum, and clearly hopes the project will prompt action, as well as reflection.

Holten explains her most basic hope, which is that the Museum will encourage people to start using and enjoying their shared public space again:

One hundred years ago the Concourse was built for people to stroll along, under the shade of the trees, but in 2009 it takes quite an effort to get people out for a walk—hopefully we’ll get them strolling! There are a number of individuals who I met because they are interested in trees, or in “green” issues, and we’ve tried to use the momentum of the Tree Museum to help them make differences. For example, Fernando Tirado (tree No. 88) is district manager for Bronx Community Board #7 and he’s been prompted to establish a “Greening the Concourse” project. He’s organizing summer internships for youth in the area: giving them a job and training, and at the same time actually greening the street.

Perhaps more importantly, Holten’s Tree Museum (which she describes as “practically invisible—it’s part of the urban fabric”) demonstrates an intriguing way to re-imagine the landscape: finding ways to make the hidden layers and connections of a street’s story visible (or audible) might ultimately be as, if not more, important than installing a new swing set in the park.

[Previous guest posts by Nicola Twilley include Watershed Down, The Water Menu, Atmospheric Intoxication, and Park Stories].

NYNEX, Embedded Angel of New York City

[Image: The original fire house from Ghostbusters, seen here via Google Street View].

Every once in a while it’s rumored that there will be a Ghostsbusters III – the current rumor being that Judd Apatow might produce – and so, today, while walking around the National Gallery of Modern Art here in Rome, in a state of 100º exhaustion, I got to thinking about what would make an interesting plot if BLDGBLOG were somehow hired to write the screenplay.
And this is what I came up with:
It’s 1997. NYNEX is on the verge of being purchased by Bell Atlantic, after which point it will be dissolved in all but name.
But all hell starts breaking loose. Pay phones ring for no reason, and they don’t stop. Dead relatives call their families in the middle of the night. People, horrifically, even call themselves – but it’s the person they used to be, phoning out of the blue, warning them about future misdirection.
Every once in a while, though, something genuinely bad happens: someone answers the phone… and they go a little crazy.
Thing is – spoiler alert – halfway through the film, the Ghostbusters realize that NYNEX isn’t a phone system at all: it’s the embedded nervous system of an angel – a fallen angel – and all those phone calls and dial-up modems in college dorm rooms and public pay phones are actually connected into the fiber-optic anatomy of a vast, ethereal organism that preceded the architectural build-up of Manhattan.
Manhattan came afterwards, that is: NYNEX was here first.
It’s worth recalling, in fact, that NYNEX – at least according to Wikipedia – actually stood for New York/New England, “with the X representing the unknown future (or ‘the uneXpected’).” It’s like Malcolm X’s telephonically inclined, wiry cousin.
So the phone system of Manhattan – all those voices! all those connections! leading one life to another – starts to act up, provoked by its dissolution into Bell Atlantic… and the Ghostbusters are called in to fix it.
Fixing it involves rapid drives from telephone substation to telephone substation, from library to library, all while Dan Ackroyd’s character keeps receiving phone calls about a family crisis… his ex-wife is calling… his dad is calling… they’re urging him to stop this whole, crazy Ghostbusters business… He starts acting funny. The voices on the phone say strange things. They call at strange hours. He feels kinship with public pay phones; they sometimes ring as he walks past. He tries to call his family back – but they’re not answering.
Harold Ramis starts to suspect something.
In the background there are shadowy figures called out to fix transmission lines – but they are actually wiring something up… something big…
The whole movie then leads up to the granddaddy of them all: an electromagnetic confrontation inside the windowless, Brutalist telephone switching tower at 33 Thomas Street (rumored haunt of the ghost of Aleister Crowley).

[Image: 33 Thomas Street, via Wikipedia, “is a telephone exchange or wire center building which contains three major 4ESS switches used for interexchange (long distance) telephony…”].

The opening scene: a pay phone on a sun-splashed street near Washington Square Park. You can see the famous arch in the background.
A man is sitting nearby, outside a deli. He’s got a bagel and a coffee and he’s reading the New York Times.
The phone starts to ring. He looks at it. It rings and rings.
He gets up, finally, and approaches the phone – and he answers it.
It’s his dad.
But he thought his dad was dead.
Ghostbusters III.
The city’s telecommunications system is not some mere collection of copper wires and fiber optics, the film will suggest; it’s actually the subtle anatomy of a barely understood supernatural being, an angel of rare metals embedded in the streets of Manhattan.
Somewhere between AT&T and H.P. Lovecraft, by way of electromagnetized Egyptian mythology.
These metals, Harold Ramis will explain, pushing up his eyeglasses, also correspond to materials used in pre-Christian burial rituals throughout Mesopotamia. Copper coffins. Traces of selenium found in embalming tools. He refers to Tiamat, dragon of multiple heads, and he draws mind-bending parallels between Middle Eastern mythology and the origins of NYNEX. NYNEX/Tiamat. NYNEX/Michael. NYNEX/Metatron.
Certain members of the audience think the whole thing sounds like bullshit. But they like the special effects. And who cares, anyway.
So the movie will involve everyone from Guglielmo Marconi to Thomas Edison to Alexander Graham Bell (he’s the “ultimate sorcerer,” Dan Ackroyd exclaims, laughing along with the rest of us), and it will make reference to the hundreds of architecturally interesting telephone substations scattered throughout the greater New York region.
It’s voodoo meets urban infrastructure by way of Avital Ronell. Architecture students will flock to see it.
Having seen the film, people will long for the days of pay telephones – when, according to the film’s mythology, you were actually using the body of an angel to make local phone calls.
Within the film, then, there are also brief scenes of excavation – a kind of angelic archaeology wherein Bill Murray digs through the plaster of tenement walls in search of ancient trunk lines. But he accidentally breaks into the plumbing.
At one point, he and Ernie Hudson drive north along the Hudson, discussing Christian archangels, afraid to use the car phone, looking for some kind of old anchorage point for the phone system.
They think maybe they can just shut the whole thing off.
They are surrounded by dark trees and the scenography is breath-taking.
Harold Ramis then uncovers a diagram of city streets and the exact locations of NYNEX lines; these line up with other diagrams from some Central European grimoire that he finds down in the basement of the New York Public Library.
They’re getting close, in other words.
And that’s when they discover 33 Thomas Street.
In any case, the film is released in the summer of 2012 and it’s a runaway blockbuster. It’s “a return to American mythmaking,” A.O. Scott writes in the New York Times, and there’s immediate talk of a Ghostbusters IV.
Manhattan is the wired center of a vast, global haunting, a transmission point crisscrossed by whispers above a magical infrastructure no one fully understands.
Ghostbusters III: hire me, and I’ll write it! I don’t think it’d be a bad movie, actually.

The Rentable Basement Maze

[Image: The subterranean vaults of Manhattan, seen here in City Hall station, which closed in December 1945; photo by David Sagarin (1978), via the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Historic American Engineering Record of the Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service].

A city with an abandoned underground train line, one that cuts beneath some of the nicest townhouses in the city, develops an unexpected new real estate idea: renting out temporary basements in the form of repurposed subway cars.
Access stairs are cut down from each individual house till they connect up with the existing disused train tunnels below; each private residence thus becomes something like a subway station, with direct access, behind a locked door, to the subterranean infrastructure of the city far below.
Then, for a substantial fee – as much as $15,000 a month – you can rent a radically redesigned subway car, complete with closets, shelves, and in-floor storage cubes. The whole thing is parked beneath your house and braked in place; it has electricity and climate control, perhaps even WiFi. You can store summer clothes, golf equipment, tool boxes, children’s toys, and winter ski gear.
When you no longer need it, or can’t pay your bills, you simply take everything out of it and the subway car is returned to the local depot.
A veritable labyrinth of moving rooms soon takes shape beneath the city.

[Image: The great Manhattan underdome, photo by David Sagarin (1978), via the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Historic American Engineering Record of the Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service (which includes many other incredible photographs of that subway line)].

Within a few years, the market matures.
You can then rent bar cars, home gyms, private restaurants, cheese caves, wine cellars, topless dancing clubs, recording studios, movie theaters, and even an aquarium. You can’t sleep in the middle of the night and so you wander downstairs to look at rare tropical fish, alone with fantastic webworks of coral beneath a slumbering metropolis.
Bespoke planetarium cars are soon developed; you step into your own personal history of the sky every night as the clanking metal of distant private rail switches echoes in the tunnels all around you, basements unlatching and moving on through urban darkness.
Shoe storage. Rare book libraries. Guest bedrooms. Growing operations. Swine flu quarantine facilities.
The catalog of newly mobile subterranean architectural typologies comes to include nearly anything the clients can imagine – or afford. Rumor has it, a particularly wealthy widower on the Upper West Side of Manhattan has whole exhibitions from the American Museum of Natural History parked beneath his house when the Museum closes at night; he goes down in his slippers, and he looks at dinosaur skeletons and gemstones as he thinks about his wife.
But then the economy crashes. The market in rentable basements dries up. The lovingly detailed personalized cars that once trolled around beneath the city are dismantled and sold for scrap.
Within a generation, the very idea that people once had personal access to a migratory maze of temporary rooms far below seems almost impossible to believe.

Deep in the basement of an ancient tenement on Second Avenue in the heart of midtown New York City, I was fishing

Last summer, on the extremely short-lived blog Urbablurb – which only managed five posts before dying, yet still remains interesting today – we read about the little-known phenomenon of people fishing in the basements of Manhattan.

[Image: A map of the lost rivers of Manhattan, via Urbablurb].

Urbablurb quotes from The New York Times:

We had a lantern to pierce the cellar darkness and fifteen feet below I clearly saw the stream bubbling and pushing about, five feet wide and upon its either side, dark green mossed rocks. This lively riverlet was revealed to us exactly as it must have appeared to a Manhattan Indian many years ago.
With plum-bob and line, I cast in and found the stream to be over six feet deep. The spray splashed upwards from time to time and standing on the basement floor, I felt its tingling coolness.
One day I was curious enough to try my hand at fishing. I had an old-fashioned dropline and baited a hook with a piece of sperm-candle. I jiggled the hook for about five minutes and then felt a teasing nibble. Deep in the basement of an ancient tenement on Second Avenue in the heart of midtown New York City, I was fishing.

The lost rivers of Manhattan are real; hundreds of streams and whole wetlands were paved over and filled so that the roots of buildings could safely grow. But whether or not you could ever fish in them – and this whole thing sounds like Dr. Seuss to me – is the subject of a post on the also now defunct blog, Empire Zone. There, a commenter informs us that fishing for eyeless carp in the underground cisterns of Istanbul is something of a national past-time.

Alas, we also learn that, as to the question of “whether any carp could be found swimming under Manhattan today,” the answer, sadly, is no.

But how much would I love to find myself in New York City for a weekend, perhaps sent there by work to cover a story – when the phone rings in my hotel room. It’s 11pm. I’m tired, but I answer. An old man is on the other end, and he clears his throat and he says: “I think this is something you’d like to see.” I doubt, I delay, I debate with myself – but I soon take a cab, and, as the clock strikes 12am, I’m led down into the basement of a red brick tenement building on E. 13th Street.

I step into a large room, that smells vaguely of water – and six men are sitting around an opening in the floor, holding fishing poles in the darkness.

(Also on Urbablurb: Who is Jack Gasnick?).

It’s Friday, June 1, in New York City

[Image: Standing outside the Storefront for Art and Architecture. Photo by City of Sound].

It’s that time of day again: I’m on my way south across the island, heading down to the Storefront for Art and Architecture, for Day 4 of Postopolis!
Dan Hill has continued his coverage of the event, so if you’re looking for regular updates – as opposed to my half-efforts here, full of nothing – I’d urge you all to go check out City of Sound. There’s also a Postopolis! Flickr pool, if you’re looking for some images of the proceedings – and I promise to start posting normal BLDGBLOG content as soon as possible (and I apologize to readers who are tired of these meager asides!).

[Image: DJ /rupture, speaking yesterday at the Storefront; in some late-breaking but huge news, /rup will be spinning the Postopolis! closing party, Saturday night! Photo by Nicola Twilley].

Meanwhile, here’s today’s schedule:

1:30pm: Julia Solis
2:10pm: Andrew Blum
3:00pm: William Drenttel, Tom Vanderbilt, and Michael Bierut
4:10pm: James Sanders
4:50pm: David Benjamin & Soo-in Yang
5:30pm: Kevin Slavin
6:10pm: Eric Rodenbeck
6:50pm: Laura Kurgan
7:30pm: Lawrence Weschler

Hope to see you there! And don’t forget the Saturday night closing party, with live sets by DJ / rupture and N-RON.

Walking over a valve chamber outside the Brooklyn Academy of Music

Whilst BLDGBLOG was out exploring the underside of Manhattan, from the island’s faucets to its outer city aqueducts, an email came through from Stanley Greenberg, photographic author of both Invisible New York: The Hidden Infrastructure of the City and Waterworks: A Photographic Journey through New York’s Hidden Water System.

He’s a fascinating guy.

“I started photographing the city’s infrastructure in 1992,” he explained, “after working in NYC government in the 1980s. A few things led me to the project. I felt that the water system was being taken for granted, partially because the government is so secretive about it. Places that were built as parks and destinations were now off-limits to everyone – especially after 9/11. I’m concerned that so many public spaces are being withdrawn from our society.”

The secrecy that now surrounds New York’s aquatic infrastructure, however, is “really just an acceleration of a trend,” Greenberg continued. “City Tunnel No. 3, the new water tunnel, has been under construction since 1970, and its entryways are: 1) well hidden, and 2) built to withstand nuclear weapons. While there were always parts of the system that were open to the public, there were other parts that became harder and harder to see. But even worse, I think, is the idea that we don’t even deserve to know about the system in ways that are important to us. It’s that much easier to privatize the system (as Giuliani tried to do). The Parks Department here just signed a contract with a private developer to turn part of Randall’s Island into a water park, which will not only take away public space, and probably be an environmental disaster, but will also institute an entrance fee for something that was free before. We don’t know how well our infrastructure is being taken care of and we’re not allowed to know, because of ‘national security.’ So how do we know if we’re spending too little money to take care of it?”

Greenberg’s photographic attraction is understandable. In his work, the New York City water supply reveals itself as a constellation of negative spaces: trapezoidal culverts, spillways, tunnels – cuts through the earth. His subject, in a sense, is terrain that is no longer there.

As Greenberg writes: “The water system today is an extraordinary web of places – beautiful landscapes, mysterious structures, and sites where the natural meets the man-made in enigmatic ways.”

These excavations, drained of their water, would form a networked monument to pure volume, inscribed into the bedrock of Hudson Valley.

“While the work is not meant to be a comprehensive record of the system,” Greenberg explained over email, “it is meant to make people think about this organism that stretches 1000 feet underground and 200 miles away. I did a lot of research, and spent some time helping to resurrect the Water Department’s archives, which had been neglected for 50 years, so I knew the system pretty well before I started. It got to the point where I could sense a water system structure without actually knowing what it was. My friends are probably tired of my telling them when they’re walking over a valve chamber, or over the place where City Tunnels 1, 2, and now 3 cross each other (near the Brooklyn Academy of Music), or some other obscure part of the system.”

Such tales of hidden topology, of course, do not risk boring BLDGBLOG. One imagines, in fact, a slight resonance to the ground, Manhattan’s sidewalks – or Brooklyn’s – very subtly trembling with echo to those who know what lies below. As if the water system could even have been built, say, as a subterranean extension to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, a strange and amazing instrument drilled through rock, trumpeting with air pressure – a Symphony for the Hudson Valves, Bach’s Cantatas played through imperceptible reverberations of concrete and clay?

“I did all my photographs with permission,” Greenberg continues. “For one thing, it’s hard to sneak around with a 4×5 camera. For another, many of the places are extremely secure. I went back and forth over several years, sometimes being allowed in, other times being a pariah (and a threat to national security, according to the city, since I knew too much about the system). For some reason in 1998 I was given almost total access. I guess they realized I wasn’t going to give up, or that they would fare better if I were the one taking the pictures. I finished taking pictures in spring 2001. After 9/11, I’m sure I would have had little access – and in fact the city tried to stop me from publishing the book. I contacted curators, museum directors and some well-known lawyers; all offered their support. So when I told the city I would not back down, they gave up trying to stop me, and we went to press.”

You can buy the book here; and you can read about Stanley Greenberg’s work all over the place, including here, here, and here (with photographic examples), and even on artnet.

Meanwhile, Greenberg has a show, open till 20 May, 2006, at the Candace Dwan Gallery, NYC. There, you’ll see Greenberg’s more recent photographs of “contemporary architecture under construction. Included in the show are photographs of works by Norman Foster, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Steven Holl, Daniel Libeskind, Yoshio Taniguchi, Winka Dubbeldam, and Bernard Tschumi.”

Earlier: Faucets of Manhattan and London Topological.