As Artifact, System, Problem, Wealth, and Aesthetic.
Throughout my life, I have been inexplicably drawn towards the city and, in particular, the industrial spaces therein. These massive swaths of land, devoted exclusively to production, hold a certain mystical appeal that continually pulls me back. I have lived in three cities – Cleveland, Austin, New York – and have always found myself spending an exaggerated amount of time, whether working, living, or simply wandering, in their industrial centers. Often viewed as alienating or cold, they instead provide a unique form of comfort and familiarity for me. I have never taken a certain approach or attitude nor over-thought the meaning of these places, but, using Meining’s The Beholding Eye
as a guide, I can begin to understand the various ways in which they function both at large and to me individually.
The industrial spaces in each of these cities are as varied as the goods they produce. In Cleveland, the once-busy Cuyahoga river valley is littered with steel mills, most shuttered long before I came to know them. On the eastside of Austin, Texas, tortilla factories break the monotony of endless lumberyards and railways. Among the many, many industrial spaces in New York, I came to know most intimately the food-packaging warehouses and metalworks of Bushwick. But no matter the particular nature of industry, the same general feelings of alternating activity and calm are felt. And with each there are specific images that remain with me. I will always know the feeling of the late afternoon heat in front of the Milagro Tortilla factory, or the congestion of dozens of Boar’s Head trucks loading at five a.m. as I return home from work. For the purpose of this examination, however, such images will be passed over for broader generalizations.
The industrial landscape can be viewed as an artifact of the city’s conception. Inherent in the process of urbanization is that of industrialization, in which men come together to exploit a particular site. Man, in his pursuit of a sustainable existence, has conquered and shaped the natural environment for his benefit. As the city evolved, and land-use became increasingly more segmented, the zones of industry came to represent the concept of urbanization. They are the basis for all that the city becomes – all the ways in which man has altered the landscape.
Industry in contemporary times can also be viewed as a global system. In this sense, the spaces devoted to production are a link in the chain that connects natural resources to a variety of necessary goods. The steel mill in Cleveland is a “service station” that functions in the larger system of construction and infrastructure. The restaurant supply plant exists within the vastly complex system of sustenance. Industry is the most widespread man-made landscape, one created as a systematic, rational web of global connectivity. In many ways, the industrial complex provides a stronger link between men than does the natural world. Indeed, more similarities can seen amongst factories and warehouses around the globe than wild landscapes.
We can also consider the spaces of industry as a problem, corroding the natural environment at an ever-increasing and more final rate. While it developed as a means for easing our existence, it can be argued that much of what it has become is in fact a detriment to human life. Especially in cases where industry runs dry, such as steel did in Cleveland, we are faced with the prospect of reversing decades (sometimes centuries) of intervention on the landscape. While I do not agree that industry is inherently a problem (I believe just the opposite), it is becoming more evident that the system in its current manifestation is in need of repair.
Just as industry and urbanization are linked, so too are industry and wealth. It provides a perfect example for seeing landscape as a means to achieving wealth. A factory is worth whatever income it can produce for the owner; it exists for this purpose alone. Its monetary effect extends beyond this, however, as the placement of a large industrial lot directly effects the value of the surrounding land, typically negatively. The adjacent lots become less desirable for most uses except more industry. This, in conjunction with city zoning laws, is responsible for the creation of areas in Bushwick and elsewhere that are devoted entirely to industry.
Finally, we can see these urban landscapes of production as a distinct aesthetic. Just as sweeping views of the countryside can be understood for their picturesque qualities, so too can the factories and plants of the modern city. Beyond the brute and grit, the beauty and honesty of their design, functional to the finest detail, can be incredibly moving. With the right mindset, we can appreciate industry as a reflection of our society, ever-evolving and improving. Conversely, we can take them as a tragic reminder of the damage we are inflicting on our planet. Not by conscious choice, I see the former. I walk through these parts of the city, past the lumberyard, the tortilla factory, and see the backbone of urban society. As a lover of city life, the industrial landscape appears both essential and beautiful.