1. A good place, 2. Tuan, 3. Tuan (cont.), 4. Jackson, 5. Kunstler, 6. Kunstler (cont.), 7. Midterm, 8. Waldie, 9. Pollan , 10. Pollan (cont.), 11. Flint, 12. Sorkin, 13. Sorkin (cont.), 14. Final , 15. Parting Thoughts
No one can understand “place" (sure that I don’t) without running into politics, geography, economics, history, philosophy, literature, physics, etc--but none of these categories can sum ‘place’ up. And no one, I think, can approach 'place' from the few or all of the perspectives I've just named. For my own part, I've focused on history and geography (the latter of which seems a conglomeration of many of the different categories that I’ve just mentioned) but dabbled in each of the others, and Gallatin has provided three chances to learn each: this class, Marie Cruz Soto's "Narrating History, Memory, and Place,” and Becky Amato’s Place and Memory (which i haven't written about). The most challenging part is to put them into dialogue. Here So this is what I'll do with my last post.
Narrating History, Memory, and Place.
A Sense of Place (of its history, of what defines it, who it belongs to) is implicit in one’s politics. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Unlike this class which in some ways was an examination of places, NHMP was about the stories we tell about them.
Marie's class was very much about the intersection of history (of places big and small, socially constructed, socially imagined—no sympathy for Genus Loci here, no searching for an unreal Arcadia), politics, and media in the defining of places, and of making the implicit claims within those identities known. For example, Robert Moses, backed by his own political machine, wanted revenge for Jacob’s successful defense of Washington Square Park. He planned to eradicate her home, but before he could do so he needed to declare areas of the West Village “blighted.” This is a necessary erasure of a vast magnitude: of the people the homes within that absolute space; of the interconnections in relative space; and of the history of the West Village. He in essence declared it a ‘space’—an area without meaning, without any felt value—and tried to cast New York as the fledgling great modern city in need of highways and high-rises to ascend to the heights of its potential. He declared himself the promethean hero of this story, though perhaps his brand of creative destruction is more like Faust’s. To fight back, Jacobs narrated the West Village as a Place. To do this she re-write the American Urban narrative, and in doing so she made some very populist claims about who should govern the use of space. This is why her vision has been called republican by some. She changed the whole idea of the city in history—it is something that stretches on, always changing, never finished with a final form. Robert Moses felt very differently—that once the modern city was completed, it was done forever. As we can tell from this story, the narratives that we tell ourselves about places compete with other stories to be the dominate understanding of that place.
Another instance when I was happy to have the classes overlap was in reading James Howard Kunstler’s The Geography of Nowhere. Kunstler is trying to change the history of a familiar place—the United States—by writing a different story, to change what Doreen Massey calls “The Space Time Envelope.” If his version of postwar American history successfully became the dominant narrative against what has been called the Pastoralist of American political and social understanding, the public might be convinced that we have indeed neglected issues of ‘place,’ that the car is responsible for many of our ills, etc.
When I came home from my sophomore year at college, I decided that I did not want to partake in the tradition of taking a car to get everywhere. This lasted a mere week. I quickly re-discovered why nobody ever chose to walk anywhere in my hometown: there are no sidewalks. On top of that, the nearest business to the house I grew up in is five miles away! The one time that I did walk to the nearest coffeehouse (which took over two hours), I felt as though I was seeing the area around my house for the first time. I am almost embarrassed to share this, but it was the first time in my then twenty years of life that I had ever seen most of the stretches of road while not zooming by them in a car.
I suppose every person who has ever gone on a road-trip has had an experience similar to this – the kind you have when you step out of your car at a rest-stop and look back and see the highway not as a black mass passing beneath your wheels, but instead as an object measured against the scale of a human body. The absurdity of what you see takes your breath away. Walking along the winding suburban streets two summers ago, beauty of the trees and forests that lined the sides of the road and the peacefulness in the space between them became visible to me for the first time. When a car would speed on by, I would suddenly be hit by a want to scream: “Stop it! Why are you moving so fast!” But it only took looking back on any other time I’d ever made that journey to remember.
What Kunstler so clearly articulates in his book, and specifically in the quote I have included above, is that the majority of people in America are no longer aware of the unconscious unease they feel in the lives that they are living. Having grown up in what Kunstler refers to as “America’s Man-Made Landscape”, many people have never experienced life in a community where natural connections can be made and in which human beings are able to share and exist with one another in a, for lack of a better word, human way. As I plan on heading out on a road-trip around America again over the course of the next year, I suppose it is a place like this that I am looking for.
[photo taken by me - my mother hula hooping at a rest step along I-70 in june 2009]
The Freedom Tunnel, between the 70’s-110’s on the upper west side, was an active place twenty years ago. It was filled with the characters who used to be a more visible presence in New Yorkers’ lives - the unshaven, the uncouth, the unclean. In need of space to live and work amid the skyrocketing real estate, the street artists; the apartment-less colonized an abandoned piece of New York City infrastructure: the train tunnel beneath Riverside Drive. At its height of residence and activity, thousands gathered to live and work in the Freedom Tunnel. The tunnel was covered in make-shift dwellings - a village - a subterranean shantytown. It was a community existing in its own set of rules. The people who made houses in the tunnel made a place to call their own. Like Michael Pollan, these men and women left a piece of the City they once called home because they could not work or live there anymore. The street artists built for themselves a creative place of escape and expression. And in setting up camp beneath the City that inspired their work, they were able to regard New York with a new perspective.
Robert Moses built the train tunnel in the 1930’s in the same environment of public access and utility associated with his early work and planning. But public transportation grew to be increasingly irrelevant for a culture in love with the automobile. The tunnel was thus never used and abandoned. It became a perfect place for those experimenting with graffiti art in the 1970’s and 1980’s because it was outside the purview of law enforcement. The community grew and grew in the 1980’s to become a sacred place for those who could not afford a place to live. The people of the street transformed an unused public utility into a creative workshop for artists to spread their subversive art form around the City.
But the Freedom Tunnel could not survive Giuliani’s obsessive campaign to sanitize a city overrun with windshield cleaners and boom boxes. The people who lived there were forced out in 1991 when the Amtrak trains started running through the tunnel. Thousands were evicted throughout the 1990’s and now there are virtually no residents. The people left to find sanctuary in the outer boroughs, and what we are now left with is a cultural museum in disrepair - a rotting emblem of street and youth culture.
As a twenty-two year old living in 2011 New York City, I tend to romanticize the city of the seventies and eighties. I am nostalgic for a city I have never remembered - the city of The Warriors and Style Wars. I long for a city of open spaces for expression and run by a mayor who is an appreciator of street art and culture. As someone who can only visit the ruins of a former New York, I resent the twenty year campaign to rebrand Manhattan and New York City as tame and showered. I wonder where the primordial grime on which the City was once constituted has gone...washed clean or drifting somewhere beyond the metropolis.
The Freedom Tunnel was never planned for the activity that took place there. Moses was probably turning in his grave when the shantytowns were erected within his pristine tunnel. The anarchistic spirit of the place grew from it being unplanned. Abandoned factories, warehouses and tunnels always attract artists in need for space to express themselves. So much of post-war street art was adapting preexisting spaces and forms into works of art. Unplanned expression, working on the fly and sometimes on the run are foundational to the murals now molding in the Freedom Tunnel. While I find it difficult to really define authenticity, I would call the art in the Freedom Tunnel authentic. I deem it such because of its unplanned rawness. Realness for me is a genuine ignorance of significance. By that I mean the moment someone or something realizes importance, some authenticity dissipates from its soul. The Freedom Tunnel is an important place in New York, but its not really open to the public. It is a functional Amtrak tunnel, which again complicates the Freedom Tunnel’s legacy. The community that lived in the tunnel relied on the disuse of infrastructural space - a disuse that was the result of a booming automobile industry. So in some way, the Freedom Tunnel was a product of the Automobile Age - a period in American history that we associate with a myriad of societal and ecological problems. And when the tunnel resumed its original programmed use of public transport, the Freedom Tunnel died.
Visiting the Freedom Tunnel was a conflicting experience. I found myself trying to identify what is more important to a city: public transportation or authentic artistic expression. But instead of figuring out an answer that does not exist, I just found myself becoming angry with the forces and institutions that have pitted public transportation against public art in this given space. As Jacobs and many urban theorists proclaim, the presence of artists is a sign of a healthy city - street art especially because it transforms streets into spectacle. And if uncommissioned art is some of the most authentic expressions of our culture, how do we safeguard its survival? As urban designers, how do we commission the uncommissionable; how do we plan the unplanned?
The art that exploded from the Freedom Tunnel was an aberration in the City’s history - a fleeting moment in New York’s development that was once conducive to grand spectacles of public art. There will never be a subway car enrobed in the electrifying patterns and colors of Dondi or Freedom. There will never entire neighborhoods moving their feet to Kool Herc or Afrika Bambaataa. Again I find myself romanticizing a time and place I have only heard about or seen in movies. But I do not think I am not alone in my wistfulness. My whole generation is nostalgic for this particular moment in New York’s history. As my friends learn how to breakdance while clutching onto their i-Phones, I see my generation with one foot in the past and one in the future, leaving their bodies wobbling somewhere in the present.
Ever since I spent the summer in Nebraska in 2009, I’ve been coming to grips with the fact that I don’t enjoy living in the Northeast. Though so many aspects of my life and personality have been shaped from growing up here, and the people I have met throughout my time living in New York City (if the time spent attending New York University can actually be called that) have inspired and helped form the person I am today, I find the basic experience of living in this city (and in this area of the country in general) to be stressful in a way that other places I have lived are not. While I enjoyed reading Twenty Minutes in Manhattan and agree with a great deal of the material it touched on (or rather, complained about), I also found that the book served as an example of a strange response that many people I know (and that I as well) have had to living in New York: making fun of it relentlessly, but also somehow taking pride in being able to weather the insanity of making a life here. At the root of this humor, it always seem to me that people (myself included) are actually just miserable as a result of their day to day life here. While I’ve taken a great deal of joy in weathering this enigma of a city for four years, my time in New York this semester has cemented that this is not the city for me – at least for now.
My current plan for this summer is a road-trip across the country spent visiting cities I am thinking of moving to but have never been to. Now, if only I can get Kunstler’s ideas about the suburban sprawl I am bound to see out of my head…
[photo taken by me, driving from colorado to nebraska, june 2009]
While it is important to think radically and to create, this class allowed me to really think deeply and ground all of the things I've been learning for the past four years. It was something like an overview, yet delved deeply into important topics. We learned things theoretical but also factual and most importantly learned to experience and think about the places that we occupy everyday.
Reflecting on this course has me questioning why we don't learn about architecture as part of our fundamental education. We learn art and music alongside the fundamentals, but unless we choose to study it, we don't learn how to experience and think about places. Perhaps if we revamped the entire teaching process of architecture - implemented it at an early age, made sure we taught classes like this one before we started designing in studios - perhaps we would have more places in our world that evoke a great sense of place and less of the buildings and cities that do nothing but propogate social and economic problems.
my photo of the architecture studio I took at Columbia
When we meet someone with whom we feel a deep connection, we immediately begin creating the reality in which the relationship resides. We make a world of meaning that only the people forming the connection understand. Through a series of shared experiences and shared aspirations we develop our own language. I know that when I’m talking to a best friend around other people, most people cannot even understand how we communicate because of the various names and gestures we have made up to signify various meanings. Tuan writes, “a brief but intense experience is capable of nullifying the past so that we are ready to abandon home for the promised land.” (184) I see home in this passage as a known place and the promised land as an unknown place. The adventure of pursuing that unknown promised land with someone is a blind leap into the intensity of true friendship. It is a demonstration of mutual vulnerability that provides the core experience for a relationship.
Intimate friendships are a pause in the perpetual mundane - a passage into an alternate reality of fun. We actively reject any and all external realities; the outside world does not exist when sharing intimate moments. Place and friendship are similar in that regard, but friendships require more social construction. We arrive in a space, pause, think and deem it a place. We return if the intimacy of the place is strong enough. A friendship on the other hand requires work from the start. We simply don’t arrive into friendships the same way we arrive into places. But the same removal from a wider shared reality into one you construct is unifying phenomenological thread.
This semester was my first at Gallatin. I applied into the music composition program at Steinhardt and stayed there for three semesters before feeling that I needed a change. I was losing interest in the theories and principles taught in music school, not that they were no longer pertinent, but rather, I felt a shifting of focus into a realm of music that didn’t operate on the moment to moment, fixed basis of standard notation.
I was beginning to see a strong and helpful connection between the music I was interested in and architecture. In short, a building establishes certain confines, and in doing so, caters to certain functions while making others quite difficult. In some way, it limits what a person can do inside of its walls, but in no way does it determine moment to moment activity. Toward the end of last year I started experimenting with a system of graphic notation; my goal was to provide a score to an entire piece within the limit of one page. I divided the page into two boxes, creating two distinct sections, each containing a set of musical directions and possibilities. It struck me one day that this sort of score was working very similarly in relation to the improvisor/performer as a building works in relation to its inhabitant(s): In both cases, certain predetermined structures limit what can go on inside of them while allowing and encouraging creative decisions to be made in order to best use this predetermined material to and within its limits.
When I decided to transfer to Gallatin, this interest in architecture was very much at the front of my mind, and while looking through courses, this one was the first to catch my eye. I wanted to better understand the effects of space and place in order to work towards a new way of working with music. I expected the course to take a mostly spiritual standpoint, and through Tuan, this expectation continued. However, as we moved onward, the course quickly shifted toward a concern for space and place within the real world, and as a result, my understanding, awareness, and concern for the “built environment” was heightened, while my interest in the spirituality of space and place with regards to music, continued to be stimulated.
During the Fall, I proposed to create a sound installation as part of a fellowship program at school. I had never before worked in this way, as much of last year was spent writing chamber music for other musicians to play. I spent a lot of time, some of it thinking, some of it procrastinating, and finally, during the Spring, started working on this installation, which I showed at the Gallatin Arts Festival. Many of my concerns and thoughts either originated in or were informed by this class, and so I can confirm with certainty the positive effect it had on me.
This summer I am going to study with a favorite composer of mine in Paris, whose work seems to share a consideration of space, as he often writes for monolithic forces, not for the complexity of hundreds of intertwining parts, but for the effect that such a crowd can have on the way the music moves in space. Whatever I am working on or doing while there, I am sure that Kunstler, with his high regard for the Parisian streets and cafés, and our classes’ concern for the urban environment will be ever-present.
(Photo taken by me of an aforementioned score)
The one thought I’ve had over and over again, why is this not a freshman prerequisite? This should be mandatory for all incoming new students! If NYU wants to tout how “connected” they are to the local community, why are we not required to take a course like this, a “History of the City” course, that actually teaches students about the area in which they live? My one regret is that I did not take this course sooner, as I now feel like I’ve been walking around the city for years with blinders on. No wonder the Village hates us, we take over historic buildings and exclude the citizens, all while acting as if we don’t even really care about this city. Do we bother to teach our students about the history of the buildings they live and work in? In general, the answer is no, and the students don’t seem to mind. It’s embarrassing. I remember overhearing some students on the centennial of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire:
“What’s all this for?”
“I don’t know, some people were killed around here or something.”
“Like, a long time ago or something."
Overall, this was such a fantastic class, especially for a school within a city. I’m very glad I signed up. But, I must say, Take Back NYU? How about Give Back NYU, give it back to the city until the students learn to care.
I lived in the East Village for the majority of my college experience. My lease ends this June, and I will be moving to Brooklyn. Although I am excited to explore my new neighborhood in Brooklyn, I’m also sad to say goodbye to the East Village. Many young people in NY move from apartment to apartment, and it is easy to feel displaced. For me, the six months to one year leases are teases when it comes to a sense of place. I often feel I’m just getting to know a street or neighborhood before I have to pick up and move on. This process makes the symbols and meanings I give/find in places seem that much more important. I recently revisited a West Village area that I lived in during my freshman year. I was immediately a bit disoriented, and I clearly felt that I had been removed from the neighborhood for quite a while. Several of the stores and restaurants had changed, and many of the people I interacted with daily had moved on. Even so, I did feel a level of nostalgia at certain points of my trip. I reminisced on the personal importance of a certain street, trash can or café. Although I definitely don’t feel the same level of ease in the West Village, I still look back on my experience with it fondly.
As I part ways with the East Village, I can’t imagine what a couple years will do to its sense of place. That is not to say it will get better or worse because these ideas can be extremely subjective (as we’ve seen in our readings). Rather, I am interested to see the new group of people who call the neighborhood home. This flow of people throughout NY can seem disorienting at times, but it also possesses a really beautiful quality. Knowing that someone else a week, a month or year before me had loved or hated my apartment, my street or my neighborhood makes me feel connected to the city. I’ll definitely miss my home in the East Village, but I look forward to exploring Williamsburg.
Thank you for a great semester, Professor Hutkins!
At the end of every artistic process, there comes a time when the work is no longer foundational. In the case of writing a play (which I recently had the experience of doing) there comes a point in the process where the story has become clear. Instead of making the plans, you now have to build the play scene by scene. Analogous to the building of a house, there are often moments where it becomes apparent that plans need to change – for example: when a character transforms, seemingly by the force of its own will, in a way you could never have expected. In my experience the writing of a play often begins in an impulsive way – with the writing of the first draft fleshing out the basic story. After that, the true work begins: Who are these characters? What are they doing to each other? What is the story that I’m reallytelling? And when the play seems to be nearing completion – it mirrors Pollan’s experience almost exactly. As actors slowly learn their lines and the play develops under a director’s vision, minor changes begin to appear necessary. It could be an inconsistency in a character, or a confusion as to what is happening in a scene.
As a play, like a building, slowly comes to life and becomes a thing that people inhabit, all the finishing touches get put into place. I find it interesting that in both cases, this “finishing” process in no way signals the end of the work. A play, like a house, upon its completion has now become an entryway into an experience, a place for people to exist for a time.
It is a liberating thought to remember that the end of a creative process merely serves as the beginning for another collaborator. With this understanding, the work never stops. I could certainly stand to acquire a bit more patience in the “finishing” processes in my life.
I notice that many of posts are concerned with qualities of space and place that aren’t inherent in the design or implementation of it. I return often to Tuan and Jackson’s ideas that what actually happens in the space lends to its character. I think these ideas resonate strongly with me because I feel the strongest connections to places that hold some sort of meaning—usually because of the people there or a significant event that happened there. Of course, I do find myself in awe of places for their aesthetic qualities and the feelings that design and use bring out in me.) This realization has shown me that this course has helped me to realize that the qualities of spaces and places are complex things.
A quick Google search revealed that Edgar Allan Poe lived on 85 West Third Street from 1844-1845. When I arrived at this address I found a red brick building incased by a larger building, NYU Law’s Furman hall. The brick façade is marked with a plaque to signify Poe’s previous presence in the space. It explains that it was in his Greenwich village house that he began writing "The Cask of Amontillado" and where he was living when "The Raven" was published. In 2001 the original 19th century house was torn down by NYU’s expansion of its law school. It was reconstructed a half a block from its original site using none of the building’s original materials. The building’s façade now is just a symbol of what used to be.
It is interesting to think about how symbolic historical landmarks such as the Edgar Allen Poe house can subtly influence our modern lives. Walter Benjamin, a historical theorist, describes the past erupting into the present as the “dialectical image.” The marking of historical places with plaques is a representation of this image; they signify in the present significant moments of the past.
My fascination with the Edgar Allen Poe house or various other places that served as settings for great thought or action, is propelled by the power that accompanies the dialectical image. This power is be manifested into that eerily feeling that can come over someone when they stand before a place and realize the significance of all that has happened before them. Benjamin argues that we should not look to the future but to the past for progression as a society. We must acknowledge the past in order to understand the capabilities of our own actions to impact the future. Whether symbolized by buildings in the West Village of New York City or by the temples and theatres of ancient Greece, places where the past and present interact with each other are to me, profoundly inspirational. Is it possible that the greater power of place lies not in inhabiting it but in remembering it?
Moving to New York last year I have had a lot of trouble trying to create a sense of home away from home. While I felt like living in a dorm was the main reason for this, I have discovered the physical perimeters of a place are not the only attributes that go into a sense of home. If physical location is not of very much importance, what is? Tuan declares a sense of home is “an archive of fond memories and splendid achievements that inspired the present; place is permanent and hence reassuring to man, who sees frailty in himself and chance and flux everywhere”(Tuan 154). Therefore home must aim at possessing these qualities. Living in a dorm last year, I did not even attempt to make my space feel like home. I bought everything for my dorm at Bed, Bath, and Beyond and random posters from a website. I never was happy living in my freshman dorm because I didn’t put any effort into it. Although this year I still live in a dorm, I have approached living in it totally differently. Through framed pictures, collectibles from my childhood, and an American Flag given to me by my grandfather, I have achieved a sense of home by adding personal character to the place. I believe a home should be a representation or encompass ones personality, something I have now learned and achieved.