The Instagram Storm and the City

It’s been almost a week since Hurricane Sandy hit New York and New Jersey, delivering the sort of punch that used to be a once-in-a-lifetime but now seems to be an annual event, if slightly worse in ferocity.

We’re been fine, but kept busy by the difficulties of running things off a generator for a week and dealing with two small children who have an unexpected week and a half off. Best-laid plans have again come awry and any thoughts of being able to focus on my work have been banished by the necessity of learning the fine points of chainsaw operation, waiting in line for gas, restocking our fireplace inserts with wood, and helping out neighbors without generators or heat.

Manhattan is steadily getting back to normality, with lights back on after days of outages in some of its most fashionable neighborhoods while limited subway service has been re-established with Brooklyn. Things could have been much worse and I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly and easily these services were brought back on line, given the city’s antiquated and ill-maintained systems.

Sandy is the Instagram Storm, with individuals (as well as Time Magazine, which sent out five photographers to document the storm using the service) posting storm images at a rate of 10 per second and a Web site titled #instacane built to display them. Of course individuals and publications resorting to Instagram sought to lend an air of retro-hipness to their work while sharing it on social media, but perversely the over-exposure of Instagram images (since when has anything still hip been on the cover of Time?) will kill the service, forcing hipsters away from it; while numbers will likely rise for a short time, the Facebook-owned service's days are now numbered. Sandy is likely to remain the only Instagram storm, its photographic record permanently marred by an injudicious use of a gimmicky filter. I suppose we should just be happy it isn't the HDR storm. But of course it couldn't be, since HDR's images are so firmly un-hip, their over-saturated images recalling the paintings of Thomas Kinkade. Instead, Instagram's trick isn't that it just creates a look, but rather that its pre-distressed antique images produce affect, allowing both the taker-as-viewer (here less as an artist and more as a dandy with a Claude Glass) and viewer alike to suspend between temporalities, simultaneously inhabiting both the 60s and 70s heyday of Kodachrome as well as a more recent moment of viewing the color-shifting of Kodachrome dyes as they age (as evoked in tumblr blogs of scanned photographs like In the case of the Instagram Storm, the use of Instagram evokes the storm's status as a legendary event, something to be lived through to tell one's grandchildren about while also emphasizing that this was the place to be at that moment—that is, both experiencing the storm and being a part of the Instagram buzz about it. But the temporal displacement also invoked a saccharine sweet sense of loss. Philosopher Edmund Burke wrote "The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature . . . is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other." But experiencing the storm through Instagram suggests detachment and an inability to have experiences, no matter how overwhelming, except through media. Still, we should not confuse the use of Instagram to experience the storm with the viewing of events on television. On the contrary, as a social network Instagram bonded users together as a participatory, networked public while Instagram's filters made the photographs seem more personal. 

But where the hip parts of Brooklyn largely experienced the storm through Instagram and where lower Manhattan was immersed in a days-long blackout, large areas of both the city  and the Northeastern megalopolis beyond the five boroughs were destroyed. Although the blackout may have undone the smug sense of superiority that some Manhattanites have about their way of life, it reinforced the differences within global cities. The post-Sandy experiences of Instagram-wielding Open Source urban adventurers winding their way, Situationist readers in hand, through the darkened streets of Lower Manhattan in search of candle-lit bars are a far cry from the harrowing conditions that individuals in Staten Island and Queens continue to live under. This is, in at least two ways, the product of neoliberalism. First, neoliberalism has flattened some differences between developed and developing countries, creating a larger Gini coefficient in the former—particularly in the United States. The result is the development of a third world in the first, of élite, secure enclaves such as Manhattan (below 125th street, at least) surrounded by vast territories of the disenfranchised. Second, utility deregulation, a low tax regime, and the rise of NIMBYism have left infrastructure in the developed world fragile and overloaded, as we documented in the Infrastructural City.

It's unlikely that any of this will change soon. Rather, we should expect the opposite. Crisis is the new normal under network culture. Climate change is producing more severe weather events even as the stagnant global economy seems like it can only operate on a boom and bust cycle. Collapsing infrastructure and the cycle of economic crisis provide a fertile terrain for the Shock Doctrine, which was so effectively applied in New Orleans after Katrina.

Little question that Wall Street will finish its pull out from Lower Manhattan, which is now largely a symbolic and historical base of operations. I'm still uncertain about what the effect on poor areas of New York and New Jersey will be, but it's unlikely to be positive. Watch carefully for signs of the Shock Doctrine being put in place though, it is lurking right around the corner…… 

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Infrastructural City, New Jersey Style

Although the final nail hasn’t been hammered into the coffin, New Jersey governor Christopher Christie has unilaterally cancelled ARC (Access to the Region’s Core), new tunnel to connect New York City to New Jersey.

Now, ARC itself is a damaged project. Instead of ending in Penn Station or having any hope of exiting in a future Moynihan Station (the plan to reconstruct the Beaux-Arts post office across the street into a 21st century version of the glorious old Penn Station that used to greet travelers prior to the 1960s). But instead, due to politics and complexities of existing infrastructure, ARC was to terminate off-site and deep underground, making arrival at Moynihan station impossible and complicating connections to other rail lines. 

The Infrastructural City‘s lesson is that, if you give constituents and politicians enough power and you build a complex enough civilization in which notions of civil society are replaced by ideas of property rights, you are going to bring future growth to a crashing halt. So Los Angeles strangles on itself.    

The creative destruction of the New York City of consensus and big projects by a succession of mayors since Ed Koch certainly helped its recover. Finance has done very well and the city has become a playground for the wealthy even as manufacturing and the middle class have been eviscerated. But for now, the city is still unsustainable without the large numbers of commuters that work in the towers throughout Manhattan. This is a dirty secret that Manhattanites—including all too many architects and urbanists—don’t want to admit. I haven’t found a comprehensive source of statistics this morning, so my figures are a little cobbled together, still, at least 900,000 commuters enter into Manhattan every day via New Jersey Transit, Long Island Rail Road, the Port Authority rail lines, and the buses that go in and out of Port Authority. In contrast, only some 628,000 workers from Manhattan work on the island (what do all the rest of the 1.2 million people do?) and some 880,000 workers from the other boroughs commute in. Now again, don’t rely on these figures too much, but still they seem to be roughly on target in suggesting that the majority of community into the city comes from the suburbs.

But infrastructure in and out to the suburbs is at a breaking point. Amtrak has been starved of funds for decades and its tracks and tunnels are in a horrific state of disrepair. Since New Jersey Transit has to share the Amtrak train lines in and out of the city, it has to face congestion caused by constant technical glitches on the aged, overstressed Amtrak lines. But since Amtrak owns the lines, it gets priority when only one of two tunnels is running in and out of the city.    

Now Christie’s constituency is residents who don’t commute to New York. On paper, his motivation is the opportunity to use ARC funding for highway repairs. Still, he’s a Republican and when they’re involved its hard not to imagine conspiracy theories. In particular, its plausible that part of the economic mess the country is in is due to the "Starve the Beast" policies of a generation of conservatives. Using profligate tax cuts, stave the beast was meant to create fiscal conditions that would force massive cuts in government services. The impossible situation that we face today is arguably the result. No matter how utterly incompetent the Obama administration has been, there is little question that their hands have been tied by the massive deficit and debt incurred by the Bush administration. If one applied this sort of reasoning to Christie’s move, its plausible to imagine that it’s an anti-city project, aimed to make commuting in and out of the city so much more difficult, thus forcing workers and—more importantly—corporations to either move into the city (unlikely, given current demographic flows) or to move further out into exurban areas. These, in turn, have historically been more conservative in nature (this has a bit to do with the lack of shared infrastructure, roads aside, and the insulation that exurbanites feel from the poor). So, in other words, canceling ARC is a foresighted move that will likely make it impossible for Christie to get re-elected (given the money and votes concentrated in the commuting suburbs) but will make it possible for a shift further rightward in state politics over the next several decades and, in turn, help undermine Manhattan’s future. 

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goodbye 20th century

Woke up this morning to read a post by Enrique at a:456 and was amazed just how precisely he had nailed what’s been on my mind for the last two weeks.

Twenty years ago I was moving to the city to study architectural design (yes, at Columbia. Over that summer I came to realize that the music I was listening to (and, at the time, making) was giving me so much more than the formalist architecture of the day ever could. Unlike Enrique, I was a disappointed by Daydream Nation: my album was Sister. But Sonic Youth was still so important to reading the city as were other noise bands like Live Skull (and reading books like Gravity’s Rainbow…a whole summer of Gravity’s Rainbow). And at Sonic Youth’s CBGBs concert that summer I was right up against the stage the entire time. I remember thinking that the song Schizophernia in particular was much less about an individual and much more about a city and a world…this was, after all, still very much the postmodern moment. 

As Enrique points out, New York was as dirty a city as could be that summer, gripped in a crack epidemic, and heading for riot that would end all that. Soon, like Ulysses, I’d be back to Ithaca where I’d do a Ph.D. and somehow try to understand what all that meant. And no matter how great the city is now and no matter how nostalgic it is to say this, I really wish the city was dirty again. There was a potential then that has been exhausted by architecture.   





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new museum

Like everybody else in the New York art and architecture community, we went to see Sejima’s New Museum this weekend. I have never been to Japan (or Asia for that matter… hint to readers with lecture series… invite me!), but on my recent cross-country drive I had seen Sejima’s Glass Pavilion at the Toledo Museum of Art so this was my second Sejima building in a month.

Urbanistically speaking, both museums seem to be calculated to produce the Bilbao-Effect. Toledo is a post-industrial Rust Belt city—glass was one of its major industries—with a declining population. Not far from the museum, I passed plenty of boarded-up buildings. The New Museum is in the Bowery, a couple of doors down from the Bowery Mission.

It’s hard to imagine the Glass Pavilion re-activating Toledo. On the evening that I visited, admission was free and there were only about twenty or thirty visitors there. The Pavilion is well done but certainly not exciting enough to warrant a trip to Toledo unless one was already driving down the I-80 from Chicago to the East. Nor does it appear to be part of a larger urban redevelopment. Here the Bilbao-Effect has run out of road. Will small cities continue to produce cultural buildings like this?

image of new museum 

In contrast, the New Museum is an intervention that, calculated or not, will put the Bowery past the tipping point toward gentrification. Goodbye CBGB’s, hello contemporary art. Chic boutiques and restaurants lurk just around the corner. 

But what to say about this condition? Barring some major economic change, it seems like Manhattan is becoming more and more a global playground of the senses. Situationism for the very rich: amazing food, the coolest stores, the best museums. What’s not too like? Well, maybe the fact that Manhattan is following Paris into becoming a "classic city," full of money but void of potential? If Donald Judd, George Maciunas, or Gordon Matta-Clark were 25 today, they wouldn’t live there.

What of the architecture? Where the Glass Pavilion is carefully refined in its details, the New Museum is rough, reflecting its surroundings. Sometimes, the roughness seems to slip past the architect’s control. A badly cracked concrete floor marred one of the galleries. The drywall didn’t always seemed finished well. But there were also missteps. The nosing on the stairs seemed off. You had a sense of pitching forward that was distinctly unwelcome. Don’t put soap on your hands prior to using the sinks in the bathrooms. The motion sensors on the sinks—always a bad idea—are inscrutable. If you’re lucky, the janitor will come in to show you how to do it (as he did for us).

It was a dark, cloudy day and the much-vaunted skylights did little for the art. In the galleries there is a deliberate move to return to the white cube. Certainly this is better than some of the attention-grabbing moves that architects have made recently, but the galleries were relatively uninteresting. Windows were few and far between and gave the viewer a feeling of complete disconnect from the environment.

The Unmonumental Show was timid. This didn’t seem like New Art to me but rather like a get-together of followers of Kienholz, Wasserman, and Beuys. The best works were in the lobby by Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries or in the basement, where Jeffrey Inaba and C-Lab (disclaimer: I share an office with C-Lab) did a wall graphic on philanthropy and Francis Alys put you in the position of being a dog encountering a pack of feral dogs. 

Those works were welcome and, no doubt, if the museum had catered to my tastes throughout, I might have felt very differently, but the dominance of the show by Unmonumental and my sense that Manhattan had finally met its gentrified end on the Bowery made me wonder just what new meant to us anymore.    

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is gentrification the new urban blight?

Thanks to Archinect for this Psychology Today article on the importance of diversity in cities. Today, the conventional wisdom points to the unpredictability and creativity that one finds in cities as essential for network culture. Outsourcing may work, but not for work demanding innovation.

Alas, as I’ve been suggesting for quite some time now, we have a new kind of urban blight emerging in places like New York, San Francisco and Boston. In “The Embers of Gentrification” at New York Magazine  Adam Sternberg suggests that the fires of gentrification may be self-perpetuating, but they may also be self-extinguishing.

image of red hook

Blogged with Flock

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missing in new york

I ran across this story on artist and agitator Peter Missing this morning. Missing was a key player in the anti-gentrification movement in New York’s Lower East Side in the late 1980s, arguably a last stand against the eventual turning of the island into a giant stock broker dormitory-cum-shopping mall. I was living in the city in those days and in many ways it was a far more interesting and certainly more provocative place than it is today.

Where are the Peter Missings of network culture? Where is today’s Lower East Side? People don’t seem to have an answer to these questions which, in itself, is disturbing…

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welcome to spook country

studio-x in the fog

Welcome to Spook Country.

The view from my desk at Studio-X today.

The morning began with bagpipes at the Watchung Plaza station marking the two moments the towers collapsed. The names of the people who didn’t come back to Montclair six years ago remind me of what happened every time I pass by, running to catch the train or exhausted and relieved to get back home.

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death to the hipster

If there is anything that has struck me the most about coming back to the Northeast after a decade of exile in Los Angeles, it is the nature of sociality here.

In what would no doubt come as a massive surprise to any Angeleno reading this post, New York and its environs are intensely social. Whether hyper-scheduled playdates for kids in suburban Montclair (or the city for that matter) or a relentless barrage of events in the city (I swear that you could go to one super-cool architecture event every night of the year), the area is relentlessly filled with a pursuit for activity. In contrast, L. A. is a city that exists virtually without any social interaction. This is a city which in the eve of the millennium could do little more than turn the Hollywood sign green, after all.

But let's not let the Northeast off so easy. What it has to offer instead is massive social division. If people see each other at orchestrated and semi-orchestrated social events, they see not so much individuals as representatives of micro-clusters. In L. A. whether you live in Paris-Hilton-infested Bel Air, polka-dot Silver Lake, or the pseudo-city of downtown is ultimately irrelevant, just a subtle inflection within a diffuse urban field. By contrast, New Yorkers take their lifestyles seriously…whether you live in Tribeca, Park Slope Montclair, or the Upper West Side is a decision of grave importance. Identity, it seems, is real. Or is it? in an amusing—but biting—special issue, Time Out NY addresses the "Hipster," a particular, highly contrived urban breed. A quote should entice you in…

The mouth of a real-estate agent is rarely the source of truth, but Mr. Desjadon knows his territory (and is no doubt cashing in on this knowledge). He has unwittingly explicated the transformation of the hipster into the “indie yuppie,” an avatar we might imagine as the fusion of Kurt Cobain and Adam Gopnik. The indie yuppie is (literally) the child of the bobo, and just as his father the baby boomer did, he has learned to simulate rebellion while procuring and furnishing a comfortable two-bedroom.

Read more at The Hipster Must Die.

So what interests me about this is the need of individuals to fit into certain molds and the question of whether the NY or LA model of socialization is more future-forward…

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no stop new york

Over at, John Jourdan posted a link to an interview with historian and filmmaker Suzanne Wasserman and geographer Neil Smith on the suburbanization of New York and the recent book that they wrote essays for, the Suburbanization of New York. Go to WNYC or use the flashplayer below that I lifted from archinect (who in turn lifted it from wyc) to listen.

no stop city interior

Tomorrow I have the honor of speaking in the PSFS building at George Dodd’s ACSA session on scholarly research. If all goes well, I’ll have a podcast of the talk up here (a first for me!). But first I have to prepare so there is no time for the blog post that I painfully want to make. I will, however, point my readers toward Adam Greenfield’s post at Speedbird "On New York City Soul." Adam, too, asks what is becoming of the city.

So that said—and I suspect Adam and I will be talking quite a bit about this very soon—I will briefly ask what IS becoming of the city? In his seminal 1938 essay "Urbanism as a Way of Life," sociologist Louis Wirth suggested that urban life was fundamentally a question of density and diversity that produced a sophisticated, hybrid culture. Yet, by 1969, Andrea Branzi of Archizoom could suggest, in the group’s project for No-Stop-City, that the colonization of the world by late capitalism together with the simultaneous spread of telematics everywhere combined to undo the city’s distinct identity. Instead, Branzi suggested… and I quote from him at length here:

the social organization of labour by means of Planning eliminates the empty space in which Capital expanded during its growth period. In fact, no reality exists any longer outside the system itself: the whole visual relationship with reality loses importance as the distance between the subject and the phenomenon collapses. The city no longer ‚Äòrepresents’ the system, but becomes the system itself, programmed and isotropic, and within it the various functions are contained homogeneously, without contradictions.

AUDC, in Blue Monday (now being printed, if not already printed!) certainly reinforces Branzi’s conclusion. I hope this isn’t too depressing, particularly to the New Yorkers. For, if anything has been most striking about coming back to my East haunts after a decade in L. A., it’s the distinction that city dwellers still make between the suburbs and the city. To be fair, New Yorkers like Adam seem well aware of the contradiction, on the other hand, there is the issue of Volume by Bostonian Alexander d’Hooghe on New Jersey that simply took the premise of the suburbs as an evil requiring destruction while a colleague who lives in L. A. (downtown L. A. to be precise, which as a fabrication of the late 90s is the least authentic part of the city, if such a condition can exist in any way anymore, perhaps better to follow Derrida’s strategy of putting a word under erasure and say authentic) and commutes to teach at Columbia (is the jet stream the new highway one commutes to work on?) thought that I was living in New Jersey because it was ‘ironic’…irony, of course, is a postmodern trope…there is very little irony in network culture. As Branzi suggests, we need to figure out just what this new condition is, not lament a past that was already past 40 years ago.

Well there you go, I’ve spent a lot of time that I didn’t have to spend. But at least it gets us going on this question of urbanity today. There’s going to be a lot more where this came from.





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buffalo, 2006 becomes los angeles, 1994

Now on realplayer, the University at Buffalo's Nees@Buffalo Testing facility is streaming video that simulates a hit by the 1994 Northridge quake. A wood-framed, stucco covered town house will be subject to a 6.7 magnitude earthquake generated by a massive shake table. See the LA Times. As the director of the center just said, this building is designed to a certain specification. This is beyond that, this is a big one.

Broadcasting began at 10.45am EST and will continue through the test at 11.30am with a post-test inspection afterwards.

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