Wednesday, December 15, 2010

park slope plane crash

Well, the holidays are almost upon us and everyone is busy writing papers and/or grading. The blog will be quiet over the next few weeks until the spring semester kicks in. In the meantime, here is a fascinating piece of disaster archaeology from the NY Times City Room blog:

Cityroom blog: park slope plane crash - the lingering scars

Monday, December 6, 2010

Palimpsest - just some thoughts

I had to look the word up- a fragment of a manuscript or scroll scraped off to be reused. Scraping is a specific act that to me implied some tenacity on the part of the inscribed. The idea of reuse also seemed to help convey some part of the past manuscript forward. In architecture the word refers specifically to a shadow of one structure on another such as that seen here. These shadows adhere to our New York as traces of past cityscapes. The city is full of such shadows.

Other traces of past New Yorks are still prevalent and some have been captured on a low tech website. ( Sandwiched between pages of photographs documenting the taphonomy of advertisements painted on brick buildings around the city is a barely legible sign for Globe Electrotype. Electrotyping was a process by which multiple copies of printing plates were made. Globe was located on 38th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues. A quick search of the web for the company yielded mostly fragments of inaccessible texts:

the Globe Electrotype Company, 209 West Thirty-eighth street, New York, is in a better position than RICHARD CROWE ... Richard Crowe and Lew Wallace, who LEW WALLACE direct the firm's activities, are making arrangements with their ... in this book
Page 33
Printing, 1929
Publisher: Walden, Sons & Mott New York
New York is often discussed as a fluid place but plastic and sticky seem a bit better suited. Traces of this "scroll" resist being scraped from the canyons of this city and each week I only need go a few blocks out of my way to see traces of my own family's history. Globe was great grandfather's business. (It seems there may be some intersections with todays topics.)

Retethering My Identity to Jackson Heights

I spent the first few years of my life in Jackson Heights, Queens, where the bulk of my Dominican family lived at the time. My folks left New York in the early 1980s for the almost unimaginably distant state of Texas in pursuit of work, maintaining contact with our New York family, but never returning east again in any permanent way.

The stories my folks told of Jackson Heights revolved around Dominican people in decidedly Dominican places. My visits during the 1980s seemed to confirm that, making it my own Dominican Republic, or something like that. At least I was sure it wasn't Mexican, the dominant Latino identity in Texas and the ethnicity with which I spent the greatest time negotiating during my childhood and adolescence.

People spoke Spanish (and Spanglish) the way my father did in Jackson Heights. They ate red beans or moros with their arroz blanco and tostones. The accordion was an unknown instrument there. Neither the term orale nor the term güey made up any part of the Jackson Heights vocabulary as I knew it. Jackson Heights was my personal claim to "Dominicanness" or, perhaps more accurately, to "non-Mexicanness" and "non-Texanness."

That link remained uncorrupt in my overly-proud mind until my late teens, when by chance I ran into another native of Jackson Heights. By the standard of my social context then, he was white -- white as it was possible to be, as he was a suburban doctor. But our conversation led to the discovery that we shared a common origin place, Jackson Heights. How different his origin place was than mine! His Jackson Heights was an Italian-American neighborhood, one that his family left not long after the flood of Dominicans that brought my family there had swept over that part of Queens. I nodded my head proudly at the mention of the replacement of people I considered white by the great brown flood, one that I'd not heard of before that moment. But the mention of a later brown flood, an influx of migrants from the Indian subcontinent, threw me for a loop. The story of Dominican triumph, developed in my mind only seconds earlier, fell, and quickly. I listened with greater humility then, as my claim to outside ethnicity crumbled and the notion of palimpsest arose in my mind for the first time. I was more than shocked when the doctor told me that most New York neighborhoods experienced such turnover. The white doctor became Italian-American that instant. He cured me of my cough and of a certain social blindness at the same time.

Since I returned to New York several months ago, I've lived in Corona, Queens (where my Dominican family now resides in the wake of the "other" brown wave), but I have made it something of a private mission to explore the place to which my Dominicanness was once tethered. More specifically, I've spent a fair amount of my spare time in Jackson Heights searching for Dominican "survivals" in terms of businesses, homes, and other material aspects. My Dominican family's world existed largely within the spatial confines of Roosevelt Avenue, near the Jackson Heights station, so my semi-ethnographic jaunts have been limited generally to the same area.

Since my first visit, however, my interests have moved quickly from seeking Dominican survivals (of which there are relatively few in that area) to studying the latest brown flood: the arrival (ironically for me) of Mexican migrants in great numbers. I've been told by many that this is a relatively recent phenomenon, most Mexicans in New York having been born in Mexico. Though I didn't quite expect it, the Mexicano presence, including the occasional "que onda guey," makes me feel more at home than any other aspect of New York City. And, getting to what this post is actually supposed to be about, the material symbols of Mexicanness have become a sort of conglomerate anchor for me, coming together in my mind bringing me a sense of familiarity in this otherwise confusing and often unfriendly city.

I understand the symbols I see in contemporary Jackson Heights. I know why the serpent chokes under the talon of the Aztec eagle. I know the Old English font wrapped around the Aztec Nacion storefront. I know many of the songs I hear on the new Roosevelt. I recognize its smells. I know its colors. I know its Virgen. Maybe I even know some of its thoughts. Whatever the case, I've come to see that while I'm Dominican in Dallas, I'm Mexican in New York. Viva la raza, pues. I've attached some examples of the symbols that helped me come to that realization, retethering my identity to Jackson Heights.

Contemporary Roosevelt Avenue, draped in a new red, white, and green standard. The photo suffers from lighting problems, but if you look closely you'll see that the Mexican flag floats in some form over many, many doors.

Restaurant in Jackson Heights just off Roosevelt. What a fantastic business name! It truly does represent the latest Chicano frontier!

A Mexican flag placed proudly in the window of a home on my old block.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Appropriating the Past on the Architectural Façades of Manhattan

With all the commotion happening on the streets and sidewalks of Manhattan, it can be a challenge to remember to look past the storefronts and advertisements that compete for attention at street level and admire the detail of the architectural façades that loom above our heads. The extent to which architects have gone to design and execute the façades of their buildings is a testament to how important a building’s façade is to its identity and character, and together these various identities contribute to the greater identity of Manhattan. Often, even newly renovated apartment buildings will go to great lengths to preserve the history of their façades, giving New York a face of tremendous diversity that pulls inspiration from all regions and time periods. While the majority of these elaborate façades reference design trends from Europe, once and a while we may be surprised by the artistic and cultural themes that some architects have chosen to represent the identity of their structures. I have been surprised by architectural façades on two occasions within the Upper West Side alone.

The first building I would like to discuss is the Cliff Dwelling, designed in 1916 by architect H. L. Meader. This building, located at 243 Riverside Drive, between 96th and 97th Streets, was originally built as an apartment hotel, but was converted into a residential co-op in 1979.[1] This building is remarkable for its unusual terra cotta friezes, which draw upon distinctly American themes of diverse origins. What makes this façade so perplexing is its bizarre integration of visual references from the American Southwest with those from ancient Mesoamerica. The most elaborate frieze stretches across the strip of wall between the second and third floor windows, with accents above the main entrance in the center, and the corners on either end. The corners carry a clear Native American reference with the depiction of a cow skull flanked by flint-tipped arrows, which also seem to relate to the central bull or cow head motif above the main entrance.

The wall frieze, however, surely draws upon Mesoamerican designs, although exactly which ones is more difficult to pinpoint. The practice of carving elaborately designed stone friezes onto building façades is common throughout Mesoamerican architecture and can be seen at the Temple of Quetzalcoatl at Teotihuacan, and also at various Yucatan Maya sites like Chichen Itza. Moreover, the geometric brickwork surrounding the Cliff Dwelling friezes certainly seems to point to the Zapotec site of Mitla. Yet upon closer inspection, the figures on the Cliff Dwelling friezes are not more than a vague echo of Mesoamerican designs, as if H. L. Meader had never seen Mesoamerican friezes himself, but had only heard or read descriptions of them. The snakes and mountain lions of the Cliff Dwelling friezes are rendered far too naturalistically, and the geometrically stylized “masks” are sort of a confusing hybrid of Teotihuacan faces, Zapotec funerary urns, and Mayan Puuc style Chaak masks. Just what was Meader trying to express with these friezes? An intriguing comparison can be made between the Cliff Dwelling and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House (1919-21), as both draw on elements of Mesoamerican art and architecture. In an effort to develop a purely American architectural style, Wright often looked towards Native American and Mesoamerican architecture for inspiration, and he was a primary instigator of the Mayan Revival architectural movement that followed in the 1920s and 1930s. Was Meader already striving for a similar architectural revolution in 1916 on the east coast that would favor American motifs over European ones?

Ten years later, in 1926, architect Thomas W. Lamb would build an even bolder cultural hybrid of non-European antiquity that likewise serves as a reminder that anything goes regarding New York architectural façades. The Pythian Temple, located at 135 W 70th Street, was built as a sort of clubhouse for the Knights of Pythias, a fraternal order founded during the Civil War. Apparently having an affinity for the ancient world, the Pythian Temple in New York was designed with explicit references to Egyptian, Babylonian, and Assyrian architecture, curiously united by an art deco aesthetic. The main entrance, crowned by a pair of sphinxes in profile, displays a cacophony of iconographic motifs that include Egyptian hieroglyphics, columns topped with the heads of Assyrian divinities, miniature Assyrian lamassus carved in relief, and an impressive array of geometric floral designs in brilliantly painted terra cotta tiling.

And this is nothing compared with the top of the building, which recedes into a series of balconies that are flanked by two pairs of full color, colossal sculptures of seated Pharaohs. Although the building was originally designed with a windowless façade, today the façade is mostly windows as the building was radically renovated in 1982 when the interior was converted into condominiums. Among its various uses, the Pythian Temple once served as a recording studio for Decca Records where such rock icons of the 1950s as Bill Haley & His Comets, Buddy Holly, and Billie Holiday are said to have used the studio.[2]

The Pythian, unusual as it is on its own, is even more bizarre in the context of it neighbor, a Catholic school with its own relief sculptures of Catholic clergymen and abbreviated gothic architectural elements such as pointed arches. The eccentric façades of these two buildings appear to be engaged in a humorous stand-off, of which the Pythian is bound to emerge as the winner of the dual. Keeping my eyes fixed halfway to the skyline, I can’t help but notice the sudden presence of a multitude of characters and odd personalities that adorn the residential buildings of this Upper West Side neighborhood. In a sense it seems only fitting that the buildings of New York City should be as distinct and variable as the people that live within their walls.

[1] Gray, Christopher. Streetscapes/Cliff Dwelling at 96th Street and Riverside Drive: A Terra Cotta Masterpiece in Unusual Dimensions.” The New York Times, January 6, 2002.
[2] Gray, Christopher. “An Improbable Cradle of Rock Music.” The New York Times, June 21, 2009.


A Really Greater New York

On a website of ‘Strange Maps’, I came across an early nineteenth century image of a distorted and bloated Manhattan. The title of the particular post, “A Really Greater New York,” explores a 1911 proposal for the expansion of New York City by Dr. T Kennard Thompson, a consulting engineer and urban planner. The proposal called for the reclamation of 50 miles of land from the New York City Bay and East River. If carried out, the water dividing Manhattan and Brooklyn would be non-existent and the 5-mile distance between Staten Island and Manhattan would be significantly lessened.

Through some more searching, I was able to find Dr. Lennard’s radical proposal in an issue of Popular Science Monthly from 1916. In the volume he propounds, “New York’s City Hall would become the center of a really greater New York. Having a radius of twenty five miles, and… ample room for a population of twenty-five million, the entire project would be carried out in a few years.”

Now of course this idea was never realized, but for a few fleeting moments I was overcome with images of ‘imagine if’. Imagine if the Empire State Building was never constructed because it was never necessary or imagine if the Brooklyn Bridge was razed to the ground. I was left considering what was laden in this realm of possibility of “A Really Greater New York”? And to what extent would our collective memory of New York have been altered?

I also recently stumbled upon a series of photos from 1960s New York City. The Mad Men-esque photographs signify an actualized, but now defunct image of Manhattan. Vibrant Images of classic yellow cabs, women in voluminous skirts and cat eye-glasses, buildings cloaked in adverts of a bygone era, all trigger feelings of nostalgia. Once again I was flooded with imagined memories. In my mind’s eyes, I was watching a woman ever so coolly take a drag from a cigarette and another blissfully soak up the sun on a busy street corner.

These evocative images, one a map of a proposed future, the other of snapshot of the past, seem an index to situate us in the present and a stimuli for the proliferation of memories. Memories of this sort Mary Warnock argues, reifies the past as continuous with the present and effectively allows us to live through it (949). And it is by reliving a memory that we experience the pleasure and sense of creativity that lies within the historical imagination (949). Viewing these pictures (you can see the larger images on the websites) are a wonderful exercise in historical imagination. How does one imagine past and possible future in the present? What can we learn about individual and collective memory/imagination by such an exercise?


Mary Warnock, "Memory: The Triumph Over Time"

Popular Science Monthly Volume 88, "A Really Greater New York"

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Symmetries of Εικόν (Eikόn)

The Rubin Museum of Art has been intriguing enough to host a remarkable exhibition entitled Embodying the Holy: Icons in Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Tibetan Buddhism. It tries to shed some light on parallels between the Eastern Orthodox Christian and Tibetan Buddhist sacred traditions in function, subject matter, composition, and story telling strategies. Pairing some 63 icons from important private collections and the Museum of Russian Icons (Clinton, Massachusetts) with 26 from the Rubin Museum of Art and other collections, the authors wanted to intrigue our skepticism and see whether orthodox icon paintings, iconostases, and crucifixes or Buddhist thangkas (Tibetan silk paintings with embroidery depicting a Buddhist deity), and reliquaries are essentially serving the same functionality. The possibility of salvation, battles of good vs. evil, notion of heaven and hell are the concepts introduced by these works of art from 2 very remote and separate regions of the world.

Although unconvinced in the beginning, I began to see some symmetries between the two realms of depicting the Holy. Exhibition shows us the different notions of compassion manifested in the iconography of Mary and Jesus and that of Tara, the goddess of Tibet and the feminine embodiment of compassion. Parallels are also seen in the depiction of ‘’family trees’’, such as Christianity’s Tree of Jesse and Buddhism’s diagrammatic charting of the deities and teachers connected to particular historic figures.

An 18th century Byzantine icon from Greek Asia Minor depicting Christ adorned in flowing red robe, rising from the tomb amid fields like blue and green waves is exhibited nearby 19th century Tibetan thangka in which the life stories of the Buda are depicted in colored profusion. A considerable number of works on view, show us the canonic representations of saints and teachers from the Russian or Greek Orthodox Church. This impressive collection is juxtaposed to an impressive collection of images of Tibetan lamas, ascetics and yogis represented in a group of 18th century paintings or sacred statues.

The exhibit tries to explore for the first time, how two very different religious traditions have used very analogous visual language and iconography to express fundamental religious narratives. The symmetry of both Buddhism and eastern Orthodox Christianity translate their written and oral traditions into symbolic imagery for the same sole purpose to convey the religious message. Viewed through Peirce’s sign typology, such imagery (Tibetan or Christian Orthodox) is, in fact, based on a convention that personifies iconic similarity no matter how distant and isolated these two realms of religious thought might be.


Nature vs. Urbanity

After Katie’s post on the highline, I began to wonder about the nature of the High Line park. As a public park it occupies a curious liminality between an urban space reclaimed by nature and a ruin reclaimed by human residents. After the High Line fell out of use and into disrepair in the 1980’s the track was abandoned and became a bubble within the city devoid of human contact. As dirt and seeds accumulated on the structure it became a bastion of unmanaged, wild flora. Grasses and flowers considered unwanted weeds in the many small, manicured plots of earth around the city flourished there unchecked.

In 2003 an open ideas competition was held for “Designing the High Line,” which solicited any and all proposals for the space’s reuse. 720 teams from 36 countries submitted their entries and hundreds of them were put on public display in Grand Central Terminal (1). The competition was narrowed down to four finalists, whose proposals can be seen here.

The winning team – James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro – proposed a park that would celebrate the “melancholic, unruly beauty of the High Line, where nature has reclaimed a once-vital piece of urban infrastructure.” Rather than changing the line into a recaptured urban space, the team proposed an objet-trouvé approach: to integrate pathways and seating into the existing dialectic between nature and urban decay. The atmosphere and plantings would reflect and emulate the “self-seeded landscape” with a particular emphasis on the inclusion of native species. The team’s vision calls for a perpetually unfinished park, where plants and walkways can evolve and change over time, stressing the ephemeral nature of human construction. The plan was lauded in current architecture magazines and termed “Agri-tecture,” where “relationship rules between organic and material alternate.” (2)

Yet what does it say about our urban culture that when faced with hundreds of choices for the design of the park, the one chosen most closely reflected urban decay and the transitory nature of human environments? Why is the visible manifestation of nature’s reclamation of a once-urban space considered a peaceful and delightful excursion destination? In most cases the vision of crumbling cities overrun by nature is reserved for science fiction movies or the aftermath of catastrophe. Images of the city of Chernobyl permeated by grasses and trees evoke stark feelings of desolation and perhaps nostalgia.

However, I must admit I find curious satisfaction in the idea that if humans were to disappear the constructions of humanity would be claimed and subsumed into nature. So perhaps the answer lies not in the fear of the ephemerality of human construction, but the comfort of the resiliency of nature.