Goodbye to the Record Store

I spent half of my childhood in the thick of things in Chicago and the other half in rural-exurban Western Massachusetts. It always surprises me when someone says "I can’t imagine you in the countryside" (I often fantasize publicly about living in Vermont or somewhere similarly rural). What, Points of Interest in the Owens River Valley wasn’t enough for you? 

Since my exurban life came during my all-important teenage years, I found it  crucial to visit the city where I’d scour the record stores or to tune into WRPI, a great industrially-oriented radio station, something I could only do whenever the horrific local Christian station was off the air. When I went to college at Cornell in Ithaca, New York, I was even further from civilization and without even a decent radio station (the college radio station was obsessed with Phish, infinitely worse fate than even classic rock) and so-so record stores. I invested in a short wave radio to listen to the John Peel show (and, when I could get it, the brilliant, ill-fated Radio Sierra Leone) and took painfully long road trips to the city to the same record stores to collect more music.

All this is gone now. I haven’t been to a record store in years. I’m a bit of an audiophile so I still keep the best music in CDs but no record store is as efficient as the Net so I even that fix takes place online. In any event the record stores have closed down, the staff off to do God knows what. The scene is gone.

Why do I blog this? Simply enough: the old role of cities as places that you go to in order to experience hard-to-find culture is over. The Nick Hornby novel/film High Fidelity is completely foreign to network culture. Ours is the world of the Long Tail. Everything is available. The city is dead.  

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On Localism

Many thanks to everyone who came out yesterday and to all of the participants on the panel. Our next panel is on politics and will take place April 13. Steve Graham will be our special guest, with our focus the topic of his next book… Cities Under Siege. Video of today’s panel will be up by the end of the day, or so I hope.

To me, the most interesting point raised by the panel was a distinction between localism and conventional ideas about local place. For many people today, localism is a counterpoint to globalization. "Locally-sourced" produce, local food (particularly slow food), and local crafts undo the sameness that globalization relentlessly imposes everywhere.

Localism is a reaction to the loss of place which, if we follow Marc Augé’s definition from his book Non-Place, is a space with significance, a space in which meaning accrues out of historical activity. Think of a market in a town square to which the same people go daily to sell or buy produce. Over the years relationships build: children grow up, adults grow old, days gone by are remembered. For Augé, non-place, that is spaces of transit that we pass through, disconnected from others, is rapidly obliterating place.I’ve argued elsewhere that in the two decades since he wrote his book, Augé’s non-place is itself disappearing: instead we live in an oversaturated world, and non-places become not spaces of disconnect but rather spaces in which we connect with others.

But localism isn’t a return to place. For many of us, the necessities of a highly-specialized job market (how many architecture historians studying contemporary telecommunications do you know?) force us to move around too often to develop a lasting connection with a place. Localism is a simulation of the local. We make connections, we became regulars, we have intense but fleeting relationships with others, generally based around consumption (either with the staff at our favorite local restaurant or with the friends we go there with), but for most of us it’s temporary. Soon we’re on our way again. The ties break, or at best, are held together by the Net. Perhaps this accounts for localism’s wistfulness. Place is tragic: a great hope shattered by the Fall. Localism is comic: a temporary reconciliation that everyone knows is momentary, a bit of light laughter that helps us forget the inevitable. 

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Network City 2010

Today marks the start of the tenth year of Network City. This may be my favorite course.


Network City
Kazys Varnelis, Ph.D. []
Avery 115, Tuesdays 11-1
“Cities are communications systems.” – Ronald Abler
This course fulfills the Urban Society M.Arch distributional requirement.
Network City explores how urban areas have developed as ecosystems of competing networks since the late nineteenth century.
Networks of capital, transportation infrastructures, and telecommunications systems centralize cities while dispersing them into larger posturban fields such as the Northeastern seaboard or Southern California. Linked together through networks, today such cities form the core of global capital, producing the geography of flows that structures economies and societies today.
Networks, infrastructures, and property values are the products of historical development. To this end, the first half of the course surveys the development of urbanization since the emergence of the modern network city in the late nineteenth century while the second half focuses on conditions in contemporary urbanism.
A fundamental thesis of the course is that buildings too, function as networks. We will consider the demands of cities and economies together with technological and social networks on program, envelope, and plan, particularly in the office building, the site of consumption, and the individual dwelling unit. In addition we will look at the fraught relationship between signature architecture (the so-called Bilbao-effect) and the contemporary city.
Throughout the course, we will explore the growth of both city and suburbia (and more recently postsuburbia and exurbia) not as separate and opposed phenomena but rather as intrinsically related. Although the material in the course is applicable globally, our focus will be on the development of the American city, in particular, New York, Chicago, Boston, and Los Angeles.
Each class will juxtapose classic readings by sociologists, urban planners, and architects with more contemporary material. Readings will be available online.
This course is offered by the Network Architecture Lab

The term project will be one chapter within a research book, exploring one architectural, infrastructural, or urbanistic component of the Network City.
Material should not be formulated into a traditional research paper, but rather assembled as a dossier of information that tells a story through the designed and composed sequence of images and texts lead by an analytical narrative you have written yourself.
Design is integral to the term project. All work is to be carefully proofread and fact checked.
Citations are required, using the Chicago humanities footnote method. Please ensure that all images are properly credited.
The book will be designed simultaneously as a printed, bound object and for the Netlab web site. A layout grid will be provided.
Plagiarism of any sort will result in immediate failure. Exemplary books are at
A Brief Bibliography of Books regarding Design and Presentation
Kimberley Elam, Grid Systems: Principles of Organizing Type (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2004).
Allen Hurlburt, The Grid: A Modular System for the Design and Production of Newspapers, Magazines, and Books (New York: Van Norstand Reinhold, 1978).
Al Gore, An Inconvenient Truth. The Planetary Emergence of Global Warming and What We Can Do About It (New York: Rodale, 2006).
Enric Jardí, Twenty-Tips on Typography (Barcelona: ACTAR, 2007).
Josef Muller-Brockmann, Grid Systems in Graphic Design (Zurich: Niggli, 2001)
Robert Sumrell, Superbrutalism: An Architecture for Muzak,
Timothy Samar, Making and Breaking the Grid. A Graphic Design Layout Workshop (Beverly, MA: Rockport, 2002).
Tomato, Bareback: A Tomato Project (Corte Madera, CA: Gingko Press,1999).
Discussions on Networked Publics
Students are asked to attend the Discussions on Networked Publics series, taking place this semester at Columbia’s Studio-X on February 9, March 25, April 13, and May 4.
These panels examine how the social and cultural shifts centering around new technologies have transformed our relationships to (and definitions of) place, culture, politics, and infrastructure. Our goal will be to come to an understanding of the changes in culture and society and how architects, designers, historians, and critics might work through this milieu.

* denotes classic reading that demands special attention.

Introduction: Towards Network City
The First Network Cities
* Ronald F. Abler “What Makes Cities Important,” Bell Telephone Magazine, March/April. (1970), 10-15.
Robert M. Fogelson, “The Business District: Downtown in the Late Nineteenth Century,” Downtown: Its Rise and Fall, 1880-1950, (New Haven: Yale, 2001), 9-42.
Anne Querrien, “The Metropolis and the Capital,” Zone 1/2 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1986), 219-221
The Metropolitan Subject
* Georg Simmel, “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” On Individuality and Social Forms, ed. David Levine, ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), 324-339.
* Ernest W. Burgess, “The Growth of the City: An Introduction to a Research Project,” The City: Suggestions for Investigation of Human Behavior in the Urban Environment, ed.Robert E. Park and Ernest W. Burgess (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1925), 47-62.
* Louis Wirth, “Urbanism as a Way of Life,” In American Journal of Sociology 44, July 1938, 1-24.
* Michel Foucault, “Docile Bodies,” Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 135-156.
Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on Societies of Control,” October 59 (Winter 1992), 73-77.
Office Building as Corporate Machine
Special Presentation by Michael Kubo, MIT on the RAND Corporation
* William H. Whyte, “Introduction” and “A Generation of Bureaucrats,” The Organization Man, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1956), 3-13 and 63-78.
* Norbert Wiener, “What is Cybernetics?” The Human Use of Human Beings (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1950), 1-19.
* John D. Williams, “Comments on the RAND Building Program,” memorandum to RAND Staff, December 26, 1960 (RAND M-4251).
Abalos and Herreros, “The Evolution of Space Planning in the Workplace.”Tower and Office: From Modernist Theory to Contemporary Practice (Cambridge: Buell Center/Columbia Book of Architecture/The MIT Press, 2005),177-196. (first half of chapter)
Reinhold Martin, “The Physiognomy of the Office,” The Organizational Complex, (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2003), 80-105, 114-121.
The Return of the Center
* Jane Jacobs, “Introduction,” The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York: Vintage Books, 1961), 2-25.
* Rem Koolhaas, “’Life in the Metropolis’ or ‘The Culture of Congestion,’” Architectural Design 47 (August 1977), 319-325.
* Sharon Zukin, “Living Lofts as Terrain and Market” and “The Creation of a ‘Loft Lifestyle” in Loft Living (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1982), 1-22, 58-81.
Richard Florida, “The Transformation of Everyday Life” and “The Creative Class,’ in The Rise of the Creative Class (New York: Basic Books, 2002), 1–17, 67–82.
David Harvey, “The Constructing of Consent,” A Brief History of Neo-Liberalism (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2005), 39-63.
Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron, “The Californian Ideology,”
Bert Mulder, “The Creative City or Redesigning Society,” and Justin O’Connor, “Popular Culture, Reflexivity and Urban Change in Jan Verwijnen and Panu Lehtovuori, eds, Creative Cities. Cultural Industries, Urban Development and the Information Society, (Helsinki: UIAH Publications, 1999), 60-75, 76-100.
Dan Graham, “Gordon Matta-Clark” in Gordon Matta-Clark (Marseilles: Musées de Marseilles, 1993), 378-380.
Spring Recess
The Global City and the New Centrality
* Saskia Sassen, “On Concentration and Centrality in the Global City,” Paul L. Knox and Peter J. Taylor, eds., World Cities in a World-System (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 63-78.
* Ignasi Sola-Morales, “Terrain Vague”, in Anyplace (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995), 118-123.
* Castells “The Space of Flows,” The Rise of the Network Society, 407-459.
Sze Tsung Leong, “Readings of the Attenuated Landscape,” Michael Bell and Sze Tsung Leong, eds., Slow Space (New York: The Monacelli Press, 1998), 186-213.
Martin Pawley, “From Postmodernism to Terrorism,” Terminal Architecture, 132-154.
The Clustered Field: Postsuburbia to Edgeless Cities and Beyond
* Robert Fishman, “Beyond Suburbia: The Rise of the Technoburb,” Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia (New York: Basic Books, 1987), 182-208.
Rob Kling, Spencer Olin, and Mark Poster, “Beyond the Edge: The Dynamism of Postsuburban Regions,” and “The Emergence of Postsuburbia: An Introduction,” Rob Kling, Spencer Olin, and Mark Poster, eds. Postsuburban California: The Transformation of Orange County (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), vii-xx, 1-30.
Selections from Michael J. Weiss, The Clustered World: How We Live, What We Buy, and What it All Means About Who We Are (New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 1999).
Robert E. Lang and Jennifer LeFurgy, “Edgeless Cities: Examining the Noncentered Metropolis,” Housing Policy Debate 14 (2003): 427-460.
The Tourist City
* Robert D. Putnam, “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital.” Journal of Democracy 6 (1995): 65-78
* Melvin M. Weber, “Order in Diversity: Community Without Propinquity,” Cities and Space: The Future of Urban Land, ed. Lowden Wingo, Jr. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1963), 23.
Wolfgang Scheppe, Migropolis :Venice / Atlas of a Global Situation (Berlin: Hatje Cantz, 2009), excerpts.
Paul Goldberger, “The Malling of Manhattan.” Metropolis (March 2001), [134]-139, 179.-
Bill Bishop, “The Power of Place,” The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2008), 19-80.
Kazys Varnelis, “The Centripetal City: Telecommunications, the Internet, and the Shaping of the Modern Urban Environment,” Cabinet Magazine 17.
Mitchell L. Moss and Anthony M. Townsend, “How Telecommunications Systems are Transforming Urban Spaces,” James O. Wheeler, Yuko Aoyama, and Barney Warf, eds., Cities in the Telecommunications Age: The Fracturing of Geographies (New York: Routledge, 2000), 31-41.


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Against Situationism

A prefatory note: I blog sporadically; sometimes it’s a matter of how much free time I have, sometimes it’s a matter of how much I have to say in the format of the blog. What started as a Tumblr post turned into something bigger. In the end, I decided that I would use this post to revive the Netlab Dispatches. Here’s to more blogging, even if it is slow. Now, on to my missive for le quatorze juillet.   

I am alarmed by how Situationism is more popular than ever today, particularly with the Soft Urbanism/Urban Informatics/Emergent Urbanism crowd for whom it, together with Jane Jacobs, serves as the fundamental precedent. 

In Beyond Locative Media, I took pains to explain how locative media (soft urbanism/urban informatics/emergent urbanism’s predecessor) was influenced by Situationism. My goal was to expose the narrowness of the theoretical base in locative media, not to support that position. Little has changed in the years since. This is unfortunate. 

psychogeography today

Situationism’s fatal flaw is that although one of its sources is Leftist thought (admittedly, Communism was hard to avoid in postwar France), its goal was always to valorize individual experience over the collective. Situationism was not alone in this. Marrying the collective and the individual was the signal problem for the academic and counter-cultural Left throughout the latter half of the twentieth century (see one of the unsung classics of the last twenty years, Nietzche’s Corps/e: Aesthetics, Politics, Prophecy or the Spectacular Technoculture of Everyday Life by Geoffrey Waite, a member of my Ph.D. committee, for more on the debilitating effects of this turn). Situationism was the worst exacerbation of this marriage of Nietzscheanism and Leftism, leaving no positive program for collectivity.

Situationism may have started out as an anti-bourgeois movement, but since it was fundamentally bourgeois in its advocacy of individual experience, when it was through with its critique all that was left was melancholy. Ultimately even the idea of the Situationist International was foreign to the ideology. Organization, even its own, was unacceptable. The end of Situationism says everything: a lonely alcoholic shot himself through the heart. Raoul Vaneigem once wrote "the glut of conveniences and elements of survival reduces life to a single choice: suicide or revolution." By the time the Situationist movement had played itself out, it was clear that revolution required too much effort.     

As Debord put a gun to his chest in the Upper Loire, the Situationist industry, led by Griel Marcus, was cranking up in high gear. As Steven Shaviro writes in his excellent commentary on Marcus’s misguided take on Michael Jackson:

‘Situationism itself — not in spite of, but precisely on account of, its virulent critique of all forms of commodity culture — became one of the most commercially successful “memes” or “brands” of the late twentieth century.’

Deliberately obscure, Situationism was cool, and thus the perfect ideology for the knowledge-work generation. What could be better to provoke conversation at the local Starbucks or the company cantina, especially once Marcus’s, which traced a dubious red thread between Debord and Malcolm McLaren, hit the presses? Rock and roll plus neoliberal politics masquerading as leftism: a perfect mix. For the generation that came of age with Situationism-via-Marcus and the era, work at offices like Razorfish or Chiat/Day was the highest form of play. Enough pop-tarts for middle of the night charettes and a bit of colorful design ensured that work and life had finally merged in the workplace. Or so it was in theory. The reality was Office Space

Today, Situationism seems to be more popular than ever, serving as the latest justification for the neoliberal city. Instead of a broader idea of a collective, Situationism advocates for the right not to work (but just how will we survive? will amazon make free shipments after the revolution?).

Instead of tired calls for social justice, Situationism demands the right to drunken play, for the spilling of semen on the cobblestones. All this sounds less like Utopia and more like Amsterdam, Dublin, Prague, or any European city overrun by drunken American college students in the summer, taking in the urban fabric late at night with pub crawls.

If a drunken Debord might have approved, I’m afraid that this doesn’t seems like liberation to me, it seems like hell.     

Trajects pendant un an d'une jeune fille du XVIe arrondissement

In fairness to Situationism, remember that it was wrought in the depths of the Fordist cultural conformity of the 1950s. The above map by researchers working with Paul-Henry Chombart de Lauwe depicts the spatial meanderings of a young student vividly demonstrating how her experience of the city consisted of nothing more than regular trips to familiar destinations. 

Such a map would be vastly different today. According to Dopplr, one student I know has already logged over 200,000km in the past year, visiting three continents. But even at home, our own experience of the city is motivated by a fascination with dislocation that didn’t exist for Debord. Imagine him sitting down to a plate of Thai food (is this exotic to anyone anymore?), let alone an ice cream and insect concoction in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  

Our challenges are different. The conformity of the spectacle is gone. If we still seek liberation in consumption, today we chase our phantom individuality down the long tail. If this can be more fun than Fordism, it also deludes us if we think it is enough for self-realization or that such behavior is open the majority of the world’s population. Situationism encourages this aestheticized consumption of the city, only it does so in the guise of political progress.

It disturbs me, then, to hear a largely unmediated version of Situationism touted today as the basis for new urban interventions, particularly the kind that propose augmenting the city. This is a dangerous misstep. 

Alas, thus far I’m more Adorno than Brecht or Benjamin in all this. The problems here are huge and I’m only beginning to chip away at them. That said, I simply can’t offer a pro-active alternative yet. Not everything can be found so easily in an old French revolutionary tract. But Situationism is thinking mythically and instead of thinking mythically, we need to learn to think critically again.

The days of hip stupidity (e.g. post-criticism) are long gone now, distant memories of the real estate boom. With le quatorze juillet upon us, the call to arms now is to forge new conceptual tools appropriate to our condition. We need to think again, to forge new critiques, new plans, even new revolutions. 


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On 30 Years of Soundtracks to Life

Over at the BBC, a teenager named Scott compares an iPod to a Sony Walkman (read it here). Scott is amused more than baffled by this obsolete technology, although it takes him a while to realize that a cassette tape can be flipped over.

On July 1, the Sony Walkman will be 30 years old. It’s hard to imagine what urban life was before the Walkman. Sony first introduced portable transistor radios in 1957 and these proliferated rapidly. With an earphone (like this), it was possible to carry music around on the go, but both sources and quality were limited. Portable cassette players and boomboxes flourished in the 1970s and if the latter served as means of building impromptu communities, they were also consciously thought of as sonic assault devices, marking out territory and creating tension in urban spaces. The Walkman was a counter against this, turning music inward toward a solitary experience (although not entirely: as Scott points out, Walkmen often had two jacks, making them less solitary than iPods). If the boombox represents the last moment of urban decay and street violence, the Walkman represents its re-colonization. This would be recapitulated in 2001 when the iPod turned out to be the first major consumer product introduced after 9/11.   

A brief hunt for information about the Walkman’s history revealed that an engineer named Andreas Pavel invented the first personal audio device. I can’t fathom what all of the jacks on the stereobelt do, but it certainly looks very cool. Plus, the stereobelt had numerous innovative features. First, whereas the Walkman simply reproduced sound as if it was a miniature tape deck for a stereo that you plugged headphones in, the patent (which was filed in 1983, after the Walkman’s introduction, but is an extension of earlier patents) indicates that the stereobelt was designed to play binaural recordings. Moreover, the Walkman was intended for mass consumption. It’s true, that mix tapes were a step down the road to networked publics, but in itself a Walkman couldn’t produce them. In contrast, the microphones on the stereobelt allowed users to not only take notes but to partake in what Pavel called "life recording (sound hunting)." 


Curiously, the Walkman was a product of jet-set life. The founder of Sony, Masuru Ibuka, asked for a portable music player for plane trips, thus spurring the device’s development.  

What strikes me about the history of the Walkman is how different technology is now: iPods are 8 years old and already by the time of their introduction, CD players, flash-based MP3, and minidisc players had supplanted Walkmen. Technologies, such as the Walkman, that once seemed ubiquitous now have a run of less than a decade before disappearing or transforming utterly. And yet, historians and theorists use operative models largely developed within the days of the Walkman or—thinking of the continued popularity of the Situationists or Deleuze—in the days of the transistor radio.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could develop frameworks to explain our world as rapidly as we could develop such technologies? 

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On the Death of the Suburbs

Previously I’ve questioned the continuing attacks on the suburbs from urban boosters and academics. Most of that sort of writing is self-justifying nonsense, but there is a way in which suburbs—at least some suburbs—could falter, and I watch it in action most days that I go into the city. The transportation links between the city and its periphery could fail. 

I haven’t run any numbers, but I find that almost every night the trains to Jersey have another delay of at least a half hour. Much of the time the morning trains do as well. Usually these are systemic delays that affect not only my train, but half, if not all, of the trains heading in and out of the city via Penn Station. When I miss dinner at home with the kids because of train delays, I can’t help but curse New Jersey transit out loud.

Given these delays, I’ve given up on trains in and out of Penn Station for the moment. The delays are generally the product of an unpleasant relationship between the regional transit authority and Amtrak, which owns the tunnels. The latter gets priority for its trains and doesn’t do enough maintenance on switches that are endlessly breaking. When I take the PATH trains out of the city to Hoboken and then take NJTransit back, I’m usually better off. The bus is also a safe route although given the recent rains, traffic jams have been more common too (as I write this, I received an alert that the bus lane into the city has stalled). 

Still, if these other routes go down (and smoke in the tunnels seems like a common problem on the PATH trains—deteriorating cables?) and if the subways continue their decline, drawing out my commute within the city, I might question my decision to live in the suburbs and I’m sure I wouldn’t be the only one. 

Technology has made commuting easier in the New York City area. Whether its traffic via Sirius radio or google maps in my car or Clever Commute alerts via twitter or e-mail, I have a decent chance of avoiding trouble going in and out of the city if I check ahead.

L. A. was worse. When I taught at SCI_Arc and did research at USC’s Annenberg Center for Communication, I’d be faced by massive traffic jams bringing not only the freeways but also the surface streets to a complete halt. L. A. was worse partly because of its reliance on the automobile but mainly due to preposterously low property taxes that led to chronic underinvestment.

The New York and New Jersey area is a little better off: taxes are high here although investment in infrastructure is still too low. Officials broke ground on a new tunnel under the Hudson River this month. It’ll take eight years to build, but I suppose I’m likely to still be here to enjoy it.

But the delays in and out of the city inspired me to think about the effects of this on the suburbs. It might not be pretty. If infrastructure continues its downward spiral (and money runs out to build that tunnel or delays make it take two decades) one hour commutes become 90 minute commutes, many individuals will move, causing a collapse of property values in the suburbs, particularly the more distant ones. Suburbs near urban cores and urban cores would increase in value. On the other hand, don’t overestimate the damage this will do to the city either. People tied to their homes will hunt for jobs outside the city and the jobs will follow. After all, as executives moved to places like Westchester and Connecticut in the 1960s and 1970s, corporate headquarters followed.

For all the talk about suburbs as "urban parasites," scholars have demonstrated that suburbs and city cores are now inextricably linked. If anything, such infrastructural collapse would lead to further growth in the distant suburbs and in exurbia (I, for one, would think about bugging out to Vermont before everyone else does). It’s very much in the interest of urban and suburban leaders to work together to find solutions.  



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urban anxieties

Here is yet another project aimed at one-upping the suburbs, this time in the form of Tom Vigar’s Master’s Thesis at Sheffield University. Nicely illustrated, its had a bit of attention in the blogosphere lately. 

But I have my problems with it. To be fair, I have not seen the whole work, only a few excerpts. Still, I’m a little confused by the reference to bomb shelters and ICBMs as it is 2009 not 1955, isn’t it? Are people in the suburbs really that concerned with terrorism? That seems to me to be largely an urban phenomenon. The whole reading seems a trifle easy to me. 

I also wonder about gunning down the suburban straw-man in yet another drive-by. As readers of this blog will know, I have high hopes ludicrous fantasies for the new economy and one of these hopes fantasies is that the desperation will force us past the urban-suburban divide. The history of the suburbs and the city is the history of one entity, not two. Until we can learn to think regionally both city and suburbs will continue their pointless squabbles.

It’d be fun to do a counter-project, skewering the hipster lifestyle of urban hyper-consumption, a world of Prada and Moss Design, of eating out every night at restaurants with winkingly offensive names, of Starchitects and museum-discos, a world of ethnic heterogeneity made safe by the eviction of the poor, a world of knowing smirks and v-neck white T-shirts, all supported by constant CCTV surveillance, draconian police forces, ludicrous financial models, and of course a global military order.

The hipster city is where Peter Sloterdijk’s cynical reason holds, where you know very well what you do is wrong but you do it anyway. The self-congratulatory hipster city is where money has defeated criticism. It’s where the post-critical rules, captivated by its own catty but inane chatter. 

It might look just a little bit like this, although it would have to have an architectural component. Or maybe it would be a little like this (disclaimer: AUDC project). 

But the reason I’m blogging this is to ask a simple question: this is not the first such project so why this common urge to take pot shots at the suburbs? What’s up with that? Are people just spinning their wheels endlessly and in need of new targets? Is it really that hard? Why not use that brilliant wit to poke fun at Manhattan or London or Dubai or Beijing?

My thinking is that rising urban anxieties are being displaced onto the suburbs, anointed as a safe object of symbolic violence. Instead of confronting our anxieties we displace them.         



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On the Reshaping of America

Richard Florida has a piece in the March 2009 Atlantic, How the Crash Will Reshape America. Readers will not be surprised to hear that there’s a lot to disagree with in the piece, particularly Florida’s continued support of his notion of the creative class, then again, the idea his bread and butter so of course he’s going to tout it. 

Florida suggests that the creative class® is still going to be a mainstay for cities, but we’ll see otherwise. I am now predicting a major newspaper closing within months, not by the end of the year and I think there’s a very strong likelihood that the Times itself won’t stay in print for long, except maybe as some kind of Sunday morning rip-off of Monocle: news subsidized by fashion and style (this is actually the Times now, but think of the whole paper in the magazine). The music industry has been bleeding like a stuck pig for years and there’s only so much blood left. Hollywood is going to continue its dance of death, surviving for the moment, although worse off that before. I expect that the next economic crisis will take it down as well. Hipsters have managed the illusion of living without any means of financial sustenance for a while. Now we get to see them do it for real. Florida’s creative class is hardly well. For all of the excitement about amateur-generated content, it is hard to see how it can be monetized. Between the crisis in overproduction of cultural goods that marks network culture and the free availability of amateur-generated content, the creative industries are set for a Detroit-style tailspin. Make no mistake, this economic crisis is their first round. 

Similarly, Florida’s prediction that financial centers will continue to dominate is questionable. I won’t outrightly say that he’s wrong, since my research doesn’t confirm this yet, but the financial collapse is also a transition. Nobody is going to trust the friendly face of their doe-eyed real estate broker, banker, or financial advisor anymore. These jobs, along with a similar array of positions in the financial sector, will be streamlined out of existence. Over 50,000 jobs in lower Manhattan are history and I suspect we’ll see double that before the crisis is over. Where will these freshly-minted MBAs go? Here Florida is right: there were plenty of financial industry jobs in peripheral places in Middle America and as those have evaporated, the MBAs won’t be able to find easy jobs back home, unless they are good with the topless dancing

This is a central problem with the creative class: it doesn’t really exist and it never did. On the contrary, the creative class was a place in which the financial sector could hide itself. Take a look at Kevin Phillips’s Bad Money for the real story. It was finance, e.g. the bubble economy, that dominated the American economy since the 1980s. Like Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, the financial sector liked to surround itself with the trappings of the creative class and saw itself as creative. Moreover, with the massive cuts in taxes at the top brackets over the last thirty years, living in cities and consuming culture like mad was something the financial industry did, but this is hardly the same as suggesting, as Florida does, that creative professionals have much say in the economy.

When I was growing up in rural Western Massachusetts, the local General Electric plant was shedding jobs. My friends in high school saw themselves as "burnouts," understanding that before they even held a job, any dreams of a well-paying life in industry were gone. Finance and the creative class will now follow in their wake. Sadly there isn’t a whole lot left to replace them and as I’ve already stated, infrastructure is hardly being funded in Obama’s stimulus plan. Why do people continue to think it is? It baffles me.   

I’ll agree with Florida when he observes that the early predictions this crisis would undo the United States were self-serving. On the contrary, other countries are suffering much harder and will continue to suffer much harder. For all the blather about the problems in the United States, the country has massive resources and Americans work harder and absorb immigration (and thereby cheap labor, new talent, and global connections) more readily than any other country. Speculation was as crazy, if not crazier, in the EU and Asia than in the US. Americans didn’t build Dubai or CCTV. A quick check: is real estate in your city more expensive than in New York? If you aren’t in a global city (I’d include London, Tokyo, and Hong Kong), then you’re doomed. This is not to say that real estate in those cities isn’t going to collapse, but it is to say that real estate in countries on the periphery of Europe will likely never recover to its pre-bust levels. 

Florida is also right that we should give up homeownership in favor of rentals. Obama needs to roll back laws, enacted decades ago, that favor new rental construction and encourage landlords to find ways to profit with existing apartment buildings while maintaining them in good condition. Nurturing an older housing stock in cities would keep labor costs down by making it easier for employees to live near their workplaces, encourage economic and ethnic diversity, and discourage commuting long distances. These are all vital things and they have been lost in the reshaping of American cities to serve Florida’s creative class (e.g. the financial sector in hipster clothes). I am not referring to section 8 housing here. There is room for that, but there is also a need for housing for the working class and we have abandoned that wholesale in search of easy profits.      

He’s also right about foreclosures. We need to find gentle ways to reduce the prices of real estate by another 20 to 30% and not prop it up artificially. I don’t like the idea of subsidizing housing for former homeowners (this also undoes the support for landlords I mention above), but prices need to drop and drop fast.  

I have problems with even the cautious optimism at the end of the article. We’ve reached a heat-death within capitalism. The ponzi scheme shuffled around for so long and took so many people’s money that we’ve exhausted any possible economic growth that the biggest technological advance in this generation, network convergence, offered us. Finding ways to make a profit in this economy may be possible on an individual level, but I am not confident that growth can be stimulated again on a worldwide level. Both in this country and elsewhere, a lot of people who made poor job choices are going to have to find other ways to make a living besides finance and they’ll have to do it back home, in the same places that have been depopulating for years since that is where housing is cheapest. Am I optimistic? No, not at all. Too bad Starbucks isn’t hiring much these days.    

®creative class is a registered trademark of the Creative Class Group LTD, global services advisory firm founded by Richard Florida.

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obama and cities

Yule Heibel passed a link to Obama talking about cities after being given a copy of Death and Life of American Cities by Jane Jacobs over Twitter the other day. 


I retweeted it, prompting the following thoughtful e-mail from Derek Lindner. 

To Obama’s credit, the video shows that he has familiarity with Jacobs, and by referencing ‘all the studies’ (or some such thing) he shows that he is up on more recent theories of urban planning, though what those are we don’t know (Biden, OTOH, is flipping through the book in the background looking as though it’s in Urdu.)  Of course Obama’s does nothing to let the man giving him the book realize that he’s just insulted Obama’s intelligence, as if he’d just been handed, say, Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom (1962) as a presidential primer on economics. 

The depressing thing is that no one else realizes Obama’s just been insulted, because the level of maturity of the discourse in general on the topic is so low. No one expects the president to know any better than Jacobs (or, apparently, to even know Jacobs, for that matter).

I’m hopeful that with Obama in office the level of public discourse will rise significantly, but I’m a bit nervous as to what might happen with the federal govt taking a larger role in urban planning policy at a national scale. Some high-level vision might be welcome–after seeing New Orleans’ planning process first hand, I’m not a strong advocate of bottom-up planning methodologies–but look at what central banking has done for our economy lately. Perhaps its better to let some decisions be made locally? 

Hm, I’d like to see your top five list of things Obama should do regarding urban planning policy. 


That’s my hope too, Derek. 

First of all, Jane Jacobs is a neoliberal (and Banham isn’t that far off too). Her faith in the spontaneous social order of the city led us right to the current mess, in which doe-eyed real estate developers took up the life that she found so appealing and sold it as spectacle, only to wind up choking the life out of it. Have you been to the Village lately? There’s no there, there, although they have Anthropologie.

Second, Obama is clearly above it all. He’s appealing to a crowd in Toledo, a city which is too peripheral to be in the global order of things and for which the promised Bilbao-effect of the Sejima glass pavilion isn’t going to pan out (I went there last year, it was ho-hum…in contrast, the old museum building captivated, especially a great show of work by David Macauley). Still, he points out that you can’t separate cities from the metropolitan regions they are in. Jacobs is still very much part of the crowd that favors a division between the city and the suburb. It’s funny that as I was taking Amtrak back from Philadelphia to Jersey today, I thought of a more lasting, if lesser known, to the field of urban studies, Jean Gottmann’s Megalopolis, published in the same year as Jacobs’s book. In the video Obama is on Gottmann’s side, not Jacobs’s:

We must abandon the idea of the city as a tightly settled and organized unit in which people, activities, and riches are crowded into a very small area clearly separated from its nonurban surroundings. Every city in this region spreads out far and wide around its original nucleus; it grows amidst an irregularly colloidal mixture of rural and suburban landscapes; it melts on broad fronts with other mixtures, of somewhat similar though different texture, belonging to the suburban neighborhoods of other cities. (Gottmann, 5)

Moreover, I suspect Obama, or at least his advisors, have read and absorbed much more cutting edge material. Certainly Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort seems like a blueprint for how Obama won the election. I’m hoping he’s reading stuff by the Metropolitan Institute at Virginian Tech, which to my mind consistently does the most interesting work on cities out there. It would also be great to hear that Obama had read some Stephen Graham and certainly, as a cautionary measure, Rebecca Solnit’s Hollow City. I’m a little bit scared, however, by the comment about Chicago. Certainly its doing well, but are the Richard Florida/Bilbao-Effect model that drove that metropolis is finished. We’ll see, I guess.

As for my recommendations for what Obama should do with cities, they’re on their way, really they are. 

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why cities are so great today

Readers of this blog will be familiar with my concerns about today’s urban boosterism. Many american cities, we are told, are in a new golden age, witnessing an influx of trendy architecture, trendy stores, trendy people, and trendy ideas. Suburbs are the (not-so-)new evil, ungreen, untrendy, unloved by academics. 

But what’s really happening is a fundamental shift in the city that makes burb-bashing (of this sort, for example) increasingly questionable.

Some strange things are afoot. First, there is an overall demographic trend of the middle class moving out of the cities. See Michael Barone’s The Realignment of America in the Wall Street Journal for more. White flight takes place on a country-wide level as middle-class whites (and middle class African Americans too) move out of coastal cities such as New York or Los Angeles (yes, this is happening, please pay attention) to interior megalopolises. Much of this is happening at a metropolitan scale. In other words, many of these people are moving out of suburbs in coastal cities to suburbs in the interior megalpolises (what you thought that the kids who grew up in the Valley were all in Silver Lake now?).

Something else is happening within major metropolitan regions such as Chicago, San Francisco, and New York. In these places, for the first time in many decades, white flight has virtually stopped or even reversed itself. See this article on The End of White Flight by Conor Dougherty, again from the WSJ. Instead of undoing segregation, we are seeing a new condition. Forced out by rising rents, taxes, and the cost of living, poor African Americans as well as immigrants are moving out of cities to older inner suburbs (often left by the white middle class moving to the country’s interior). Being smaller, these impoverished suburbs have little political clout and even less revenue for schools or services. A downward spiral begins.

Are cities so great today? We hear a lot about how cities are diverse and suburbs are not, but what is diverse about fancy boutiques selling doggie clothes and organic take out? Does your neighbor from Switzerland who speaks better English than you do and lives off a trust fund make it diverse?

I’m not so easily convinced. I lived my first twelve years in a neighborhood in Chicago that was diverse. There were poor African American families, middle class whites, weird bohemian artist Eastern European refugee families (mine, and the only one in that area), Mexican families, Jewish survivors of World War II Germany, Greeks, gays, Indians, and many others. There was even one rich family. They lived in a penthouse on top of a residential hotel across the street. Urban homesteaders seemed like part of the diversity. They were not. In the decades after we left, that neighborhood got turned into yet another unaffordable hipster heaven. That kind of experience seems increasingly uncommon in cities today.

So a call to action for urban planners and writers about cities. Stop with the Jane Jacobs already! It’s been nearly 50 years since she formulated her theories. 50 years!!! Everything has changed since. And through away your Situationists. Their corpses have long since been infected by hipster real estate agents.

Let’s take a cold, hard look at cities and suburbs as they are today.


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