On selling cities and ourselves

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I recently came across a link to this promotional video for the city of Cleveland.* Titled “A Cleveland Anthem,” it does a more or less predictable job of articulating an image of the city as full of food, drink, sports and rock and roll (oh, and shopping. Obviously. Lots of shopping.) . It also presents the Cleveland populous as a ‘go-your-own way’, hardy and rabble-rousing sort who won’t be kept down and who don’t really give a shit what you think about them or their city. It sells Cleveland in the vein, as my friend pointed out, of the ‘keep Austin weird’ campaign or any number of other off-center city attempts at self-promotion.

I could offer several of criticisms of the video, point out the ways it elides immense and problematic urban phenomena precisely by offering a more digestible version of Cleveland’s hard-edges. But I won’t. Because promotional videos are just commercials. Pepsi sells Beyoncé sells Pepsi sells Beyoncé, and so on, ad infinitum. Capital dressed as culture unfurls its tentacles in all directions. The “Cleveland Anthem” was never going to be about urban blight or development or cultural revolution or even about the sometimes wildly engaging things Clevelanders are doing with and for their city. That wasn’t its investment in the city or its audience.

But there is a way in which such material works its way into popular conceptions of what cities are, what they do and to whom they really belong. However much I may despise (or, for that matter, adore) some of the ways Cleveland fashions itself for an audience, or the way any city I care for does, those representations matter well beyond the bounds of their brief viral explosion on Twitter.

So if no city is going to produce feature-length, in-depth, Marxist-leaning documentaries about its complex and various tribulations, triumphs and speculative futures,** what, exactly can we do with what they do produce?

Three modest proposals:

1.) Basic media literacy and regular old literacy campaigns: People can read the way they are being sold by and sold to only if they know how to read visual and textual products. This is not a particularly radical solution, but it’s one of which I am particularly supportive. Literacy matters more, perhaps, in Cleveland than many cities. Given the abysmal statistics, any increase in literacy could mean a very different sort of city and a much broader scope of participation among the populous.

2.) Alternative cultural products: While the internet may not be so liberatory a virtual space as Marshall McCluhan and his ilk initially imagined, it does offer relatively wide access to a variety of tools that allow for mashups, remakes and novel production of all kinds of alternative urban narratives. If we want to have a hand in the representations of the cities we live in, we might aim to contribute a voice or two to the din.  “The Cleveland Anthem” is ripe for hacking. The city is yours only if you make it.

3.) Opt out(ish): I think there is a general human need to lay claim to the cultural mystique of our cities. We tend, as part of this need, to adopt the slogans and stories shared among us as our own–sometimes without critically engaging them. But perhaps instead of fondly swapping theme songs, we might do a little more conversational legwork and ask, among those we love in our cities and those we might not know at all, about what it actually means to sell a city and to whom we might (or might not) want to sell it. I am not suggesting that opting out of the whole affair of urban representation is a good idea. I don’t think it is. I’m suggesting that we try to consciously mark what it is we feel about representations of the places we inhabit and that we share those feelings, in some way, with those around us. This is the softer stuff of cultural criticism, I suppose, but I like to believe that even in a hard city, soft is still something.

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*See also this, very different sort of Cleveland material, which happens to be hilarious.

**Too much to ask?


Of car culture and primal screams

Much has been written on the atomising nature of car culture in Los Angeles. All of us (who can afford it) ferrying ourselves to and fro on the wide network of freeways that cover the sprawl–isolated in our capsular space, shuttling forward at high speeds (or, given the traffic, at virtually no speed)–are said to be without a public space any longer, without even a notion of our neighbors. Our fellow Angelenos, so close yet still so far away from us, are themselves isolated inside, captured, really, by their cocoons of metal and steel and rubber.

I agree, for the most part. The automobile, and more-so, the automobile industry has made this city a network, has collapsed the center and spilled what remained of its guts in all directions, morphing LA into a labyrinth of commerce devoted to the isolated spender with a big trunk. Car culture has bulldozed and forgotten what was once a functional trolley system. It has, too, brought with it a near-constant cloud of cancerous pollution which weighs heavy in the air on hot days and seems always to specifically target the poor and the marginalized, the communities built up against the complex of freeways for whom car ownership is less and less possible. As ubiquitous as it is, it denies access still to exactly those who pay the largest price for its excesses.

But one hates to ignore, at least I hate to ignore, something compelling, something common in our not-so-new, ever-mobile cybernetic selves. Even when we can in the same breath critique the automobile (certainly LA’s most emblematic, if not its most common cybernetic appendage) and its impact on the production of the city, might we too find something of value in it? That human thing, as I see it, might just be the total release such strangely fashioned, such costly privacy affords us drivers in a city that belongs not to drivers but to cars.

Every once in a while I like to test this theory of mine out. Usually simply by singing, loudly, along with the music playing on my car’s quickly failing radio. But sometimes, to maximize effect and highlight in the extreme the kind of solitude a car can provide, I scream.

I roll down all of the windows and scream as loudly and for as long as my lungs allow. It’s a habit I picked up in college when I was first learning the freeways. It felt at the time like a way of marking space in a city that is under constant self-erasure. Now that I know Los Angeles well, or at least well enough that even in its continuous transformation and re-fashioning it feels like a city to which I belong, the screaming just feels good. Or if not good, it at least always feels.

That, in the end, is sublime. And it is also the stuff of connective tissues between us, post-human and machinic though we may be. Maybe no-one hears me literally screaming past at 70 miles per hour. But they don’t have to. Because once in a while I bet some other driver, in their very own strange shell, is probably screaming too.

“Traffic is Junkspace,” writes Rem Koolhaas, “from airspace to the subway; the entire highway system is Junkspace, a vast potential utopia clogged by its users, as you notice when they’ve finally disappeared on vacation …”* I think maybe the utopic on the highway is indeed clarified by a kind of absence. But even on packed highway, utopia as the someday Los Angeles comes as all no-places (which are perpetually absent, after all), all would-be places that are not yet but still might impossibly be, come. It comes as hope in the form of some kind of speech, some sign-making. Perhaps particularly in the animal universal of one long, loud, zooming primal scream.

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*Rem Koolhaas, “Junkspace,” October Vol. 100 ‘Obsolescence’ (Spring 2002) pg. 180.


Of Rotterdam and the erasure of spatial histories

I have given up chronology. On this blog, for the time being, and perhaps also in life. It is so unlike experience and it rarely coincides well with narrative. So, while I’ll post a note dedicated to each of the three European cities I’ve visited in the last two weeks, the order and content of these missives* will not run parallel to my own geographical trajectory.

The first of these notes (you’re reading it now) is about Rotterdam, a city intimately acquainted with the refusal of chronological history. Bombed twice in World War II, once by the Germans (a port city, it was an appropriate target) and once by the U.S. (by mistake, at least according to my Dutch sources) the post-war city served as a kind of tabula rasa for modern architecture. Rotterdam is all shiny surfaces, covered in a patina of dust knocked up by continuing construction. There is only one section of the city which resembles a pre-war Rotterdam and, as far as I could tell, it devotes itself to nostalgic tourists. The bulk of the city is new and committed, it seems, to the endless positioning of itself in the present. The “architectural capital of the Netherlands,” and home to the Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAi), Rotterdam is in a constant state of (re)production.

It also manages to be charming. Really. I should know. I got lost in the city at least once a day for the four days I spent there. Alleys to jog down, small green spaces and canals to hop across abound. I was particularly fond of the Museumpark which houses both greenery and striking contemporary architecture. Planned and delivered by Rem Koolhaas’s OMA, it is Rotterdam high brow, perhaps par excellence.

All this city space was made more thoroughly enthralling by the fact that my days were spent attending workshops and talks for the Prototyping Futures/Occupying the Present symposium hosted at the Piet Zwart Institute.  Talks by 2012 ArchitectenMen in Grey, Danja Vasiliev and Julian Oliver; the truly wonderful Active Archives folks; and many astounding others made space in Rotterdam, in cities everywhere (and in our imagined futures) come very much alive. I was particularly fond of the workshop I attended with the Failed Architecture group. You will, eventually, be able to see my notes on the matter in the archive (also active) of the conference.

I wondered often as I wandered through the city if novelty wares on the people of Rotterdam. To have a history built, erased, rebuilt, erased, remodeled and built again (even if at the slow pace of material construction) would mean a different sort of narrative of urban life than the one that exists in a Paris or a Buenos Aires. I also wondered if such reformulation, such spatial re-telling isn’t so much more in line with the way we engage history and spatial narrative in the contemporary moment. Wouldn’t Los Angeles or Rotterdam (and the two have much, I’d say, in common) be more suited in their development, in the way they’ve turned their backs on certain of their traces, to life in the contemporary moment? Is not novelty and the quick rise and demolition of structure just the stuff to which we’ve**  become accustomed?

These are urgent questions, but ones I won’t attempt to answer here. Let it just be known that Rotterdam is an urban landscape well worth exploring. And one that might, despite itself, tell us much about city histories. Certainly, if it gets its way, it is already telling us mountains about city futures.

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*Can, indeed, you call something that exists somewhere on a server a missive? What is ‘sent’ on the internet?

**’We’ is always dangerous. I know. For the purposes of this particular entry, I’ll go out on a limb and say I’m speaking from a very particular, U.S. and Western European stance. Call it ‘Global North’. Call it ‘developed.’ Call it what you will.


Of urban sprawl and Chinese dumplings

I am currently working on a long-past-deadline dissertation chapter dealing with the potential for positive activation of urban sprawl. ‘Sprawl’ is a shudder-inducing term for most, and frequently cited as cause for Middle-American, New English or New Yorker hatred of my sweet, sweet city, Los Angeles. We are sprawl, perhaps par excellence. But I’m gonna just jump the gun to my head that is said chapter here and tell you, dear readers, that sprawl can rule. Yep. I will defend that disastrous result of population explosions and epic infrastructural development and say that sprawl can be outright lovely.

Now, in my ongoing (its a Sisyphean endeavor) project I am interested in artists and activists who use new technologies (particularly autonomous networks) in an effort to provide alternative communication routes for city-dwellers via sprawl, but for the purposes of this little post I’ll set that aside and talk about something else. Lucky you, that something else is the dumpling.

If you want to argue that urban sprawl is not only existentially but socially disastrous, I ask you to calmly and reasonably consider the fact of Arcadia. This enormous suburb (why we still use this term in L.A. is beyond me–no visible marker exists between an ‘us’ as city-proper and a ‘them’ as external to city-proper) is home to the most ridiculously delicious steamed and fried dumplings in the universe.*

‘Proper’ Angelenos and suburbanites alike flock to the always-packed dumpling houses of Arcadia because, well, that’s where the best of Chinese dumplings are to be had. Whether you’re rocking soup dumplings or dim sum, in perfectly pillowy form, the best are to be had well outside the manufactured Chinatown of central L.A. Din Tai Fung is perhaps the most obvious go-to, and given their long lines it’s a good thing they have two locations in the same block. If you don’t believe the authenticity of such a place, may I point out that they’ve got locations in Tai Pei (and Japan and Singapore, etc. etc.). They don’t fuck around. The corporate nature of the endeavor is noticeable in the friendly but impressively efficient way the servers move you through the menu and deliver those aesthetically pleasing silver pots of impeccably built steamed pork and seafood pockets.

Other favorites include Dumpling House, the new and highly lauded Wang Xing Ji, and any number of spots folks who can’t read in ideographic languages rarely visit. If it weren’t for Jonathan Gold we foodie types with a penchant for decent Chinese would probably be doomed. And perhaps it is for the best that even he can’t get into the far reaches of the Arcadian culinary scene.

The point (excuse my meandering lazily towards it) is that this enclave of amazing Chinese cooking is a fact of the weird way sprawl works. Communities pop up, having chosen to move to cheaper outskirts or being forced out of city centers by any number of cultural or economic forces. The requirement of a little bit of travel to get to the glorious things somewhere in the outer reaches only makes such stuff more fascinating. You can, in your journeys to such places, learn entirely new things about the city’s cultural and material geography.

(Sub)Urban enclaves are magical city spaces. They invite city-dwellers (and all sorts of other adventurers) to navigate their way into the dynamic pseudo-external urban landscape. And such ventures always offer rewards. Contemporary sociality works, indeed, via such movement. It can be abominable, no doubt, in the way it sometimes bulldozes natural and social landscapes which pre-exist city expansion, but it is how we all, now globally, seem to be moving. Nostalgia will save no trees on this one. And, worse, such false narratives can’t be eaten with chopsticks.

I have no interest in defending the often insidious aesthetic and cultural phenomenon that come along with expanding urbanity. But I also have no problem enjoying, in an ever-increasingly urbanizing and sprawling world, what the so-called ‘outside’ spaces have to offer. It is the only real choice we have, I think. And if such a choice is offered with steamed, folded, gooey little bits of epicurean goodness, I’m gonna go ahead and say, o.k. Let’s go. Sprawl, why don’t you. I’m in.

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*Obviously this is hyperbolic. I have not eaten dumplings everywhere in the universe.


Of residual social technologies

I’m gonna go out on a limb here and claim that the photo booth is a residual technology. I base this claim on the fact that, even if the booth uses a digital camera and various editing software to allow users to pick filters, it still spits out those darling little strips. Hard media. You don’t plug your phone into the machine to pull off data. You get to hold the glossy rectangle in your hands. Oh, the sweet pleasure of such a thing, a document of whatever the hell it was you were doing in the booth when the flashbulbs went off to catch you.

I love photo booths. I want one in my living room. They offer a strange social function–one is forced to sit in a very small space with the people one is closest to and be photographed. And, in this particular moment, are not all our activities always already ready to be documented? Do we not crave mediation of even the most banal affairs? The photo booth answers this desire without the instantaneity of broadcasting that the YouTube video or the smart-phone pic seem to demand. It’s the nostalgia in me, I suppose, for certain mechanical devices now fallen into disuse, and for the print and paper sort of recording that makes me so attracted to this particular form of documentation. But one likes to relish in such nostalgia. To that end I’ve sought out the best bars housing photo booths in the Easterly side of my lovely Los Angeles.

They are as follows, ranked in order of preference:

The Cha Cha Lounge (Silverlake). An excellent bar, except on late weekend nights when the hipster crowd takes over and you have to scream over the very loud, very contemporary pop rock and equally loud classic 60s and 70s tracks (played, I think, because scenesters find them ironically enjoyable). In addition to a photo booth, though, they have a foosball table. Awesome.

The Shortstop (Echopark). Also an excellent bar. They have a dance floor and occasionally, soul night. Dark and loud and lovely. This was a college haunt of mine.

Tony’s (Downtown). Perhaps my favorite bar in Los Angeles. It is listed in 3rd place only because it’s further away from me than the others on this list. They have a sizable outdoor area and a ping pong table. A long list of whiskeys. Two good IPAs on tap and the crowd is fabulous, in the down-homey downtown sort of way. Their booth is nice because you get two sets of prints.

The Edendale Grill (Silverlake). Kind of a charming space–I believe it’s in an old fire station. This bar’s crowd is a bit ‘young professional’ for my taste, but its a perfectly reasonable place to spend an evening. It’s also a restaurant if you’re hungry and the food, while overpriced, is pretty delicious when you order well. I like the mussels. But I always like mussels. Because they are delicious.

Those lovely little pics you see above this post are of myself and my dear comrade Marco. Taken at the Edendale, they are a pretty typical example of what such machines can produce.*

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*I realize that my scanning and uploading of this strip of images may make unstable the opening lines of this post. But that’s the beauty of the narcissistic endeavor that is blogging. Meta-ironies abound.


Of pirate radio, building nodes, squatting and maté

Oh, my dearest of readers. This, dare I say it, was a productive week. Much of which I spent in ‘the field,’ as it were. My fields this week, as foretold in the previous post, consisted of the Once Libre rooftop and a house in one of the city’s villas. That house, as it turns out, doubles as a pirate radio station. What you see in the image above is Vampi trying to fix a computer rescued from the garbage heap by the pirate station. That very lovely lady in the background is one of the station’s co-founders. They’re planning on building a node in the autonomous network, the previously mentioned Buenos Aires Libre, along with some stronger antennas to broadcast the station beyond its current radius. At this point they’ve only got coverage for about a ten blocks.

It took a good hour to get to the house. A train out to the Liniers station, then two collectivos (buses, that is) to the neighborhood. A gloriously sunny day meant there were tons of stray dogs napping in the streets, kids playing on the sidewalks, folks milling about and greeting their passing neighbors with kisses on the cheek.

The house, like all those in the villa, is ramshackle–put together with found materials. Corrugated metal roofs serve as general protection but the elements easily pass through. Brick walls are cobbled together (and in this particular house, are covered with radical graffiti). Tarps and blankets separate space. Infrastructure exists, though it is not provided in any regular way by the city. The ceiling was hung with a mesh of plugs and wires, pulling power from some invisible source somewhere down the block. They get water, but I don’t know from where. It isn’t ‘running’ certainly. The house may be on the small side, and the modest side, but its residents were extremely welcoming.

Our hosts prepared a big feast for us–rice with vegetables and tuna, garbanzo beans, a salad, bread. We drank juice out of glasses made by cutting the tops off of beer bottles. The couple’s three kids ran in and out and were not particularly phased by our presence. Even mine–the obvious American with the weird accent.

We were given a tour of the station, which they built on the roof of the house–a kind of second-floor shack. The vast majority of their equipment is found, donated, or homemade. They built their transmitters, for example, themselves.

Needless to say I was very pleased with this little adventure.

Later in the week I helped the BAL folks post the antenna for the node at Once Libre. Pictures of that space will follow. I also learned that those running the place are essentially squatting. The collective occupies the third-floor of a city-owned property that had been vacant for some time prior to the Once Libre takeover. At any moment, though, this sweet subcultural meeting place could be found and destroyed by the municipality. Here’s to hoping that the notoriously slow bureaucracy in this city continues in its typical manner, ignoring, avoiding, or just not bothering with such spaces.

Both of these days of field work were closed by the standard afternoon maté ritual. I learned a few things. One: you can say ‘thank you’ when the maté cup is handed to you, but if you say it when you finish sipping and hand it back to whoever is refilling the hot water, you won’t get any more. Second: you have to make sure each person in the circle gets their maté in order. If you cut in line (colarse is the verb for this unholy act, and porteños really believe in lining up for things), you’re committing a grave offense.

Why, you ask, have I paired all these little field experiments in a single post? Well, if you’ll permit the radical in me to be a little cheesy, I’ll tell you. All of it–the pirate radio station, Once Libre’s squat space, the node-building and computer-recycling, even the maté–is about linking-in to the community around you and equitably sharing whatever it is you have. I know the cynics among you are rolling your eyes. Heck, I’m even rolling mine. I have lost a considerable amount of faith in the human race in recent epochs of my life. But still, it’s nice to know some people haven’t. Some people really do use their time, their skills, their general goodwill, to help whom they can. So, for a second, I’m just gonna settle in and like the idea. Maybe even believe in it.

The great thing about the true radical is that she doesn’t separate herself from others to be a leader or a solitary genius or a star. She just throws together whatever it is she has and offers that thing, or herself, or her maté, to her family, her friends, her lovers, her neighbors. And, best of all, she offers what she has to complete strangers. Even to tall, American strangers with funny accents.


Play of the day

I spent a very productive Saturday in a dilapidated building on Puyerredón in barrio Once. It’s a kind of awesome hipster hangout/artspace/greenspace/organization headquarters. Amazing folks, all–as far as I could tell.

I was there visiting a workshop for Buenos Aires Libre. They are a group of  technophiles and generally interested parties building their own autonomous network–apart from ye ole interwebs. All who care to participate can put up their own node in the network, or link in, or just generally support as they are able. Among the activities on Saturday was a little how-to demonstration on building your own directional antennae out of recycled materials, a discussion of the benefits and drawbacks of an autonomous network in the urban environment, and the activation of a site specific node.

It was a glorious day for many reasons: One, I was mistaken for a journalist. Two, I showed-up the Canadian fellow who was there (and also writing a thesis) by speaking Spanish–said Canadian didn’t even try to understand or utter a word in the local language. Three, I was invited by a few senior members of the group to help put up a node in one of Buenos Aires’ villas this week. Villas are the porteño equivalent of favelas. They are extremely impoverished neighborhoods lacking in basic infrastructure and, if my experience in this city serves, are generally ignored or avoided by the better-off classes. Even the cab drivers will tell you they’re dangerous and not worth visiting. Without this organization or, at the very least, a local resident to guide me there is no way I could wander in and explore such neighborhoods. I am very much looking forward to this iteration of the BAL (and my own) project.

I can’t say it didn’t help to be a particularly anti-capitalist, American woman in the exchanges I had on Saturday. Nor would I say that they weren’t pleased with my (only mildly successful) attempts to use the local dialect. But hey, in field work, one takes the advantages one has access to.

Hopefully all of you, dear readers, will benefit from these newly made connections. The longest-standing member of the organization, who goes by ‘Vampi’ and very much looks the part, advised me to bring, albeit discreetly, a camera to the visit.

So: onward goes the exploration. Wish me luck. Pictures soon if all goes well.