Sunday, October 10, 2010

Reading Walls in North Brooklyn

I live on the very boarder of East Williamsburg; 3 doors from Bushwick Avenue and the Bushwick neighborhood of North Brooklyn. One of the distinct characteristics of not just this neighborhood, but others in the vicinity (Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Bushwick, and Ridgewood, Queens), as well as quiet residential areas elsewhere in Brooklyn and Queens, is the row houses (Figure 1). As you can see, the row houses in East Williamsburg are particularly uniform in places; modular, I would say. They straddle the line between hideous/charming, but that’s what I love about them.
Like Greenpoint, East Williamsburg has been changing, largely due to these neighborhoods’ geographical proximity to Williamsburg, which has been revitalized over the last 10 years and now contains, among other things, upwards of 100 restaurants and bars, music venues, plentiful shopping, art galleries, and even now a small movie theatre. The development of Williamsburg naturally spread to the surrounding neighborhoods and we are enjoying lots of its fringe benefits on the outskirts.
One result of the impending sea change coming to the East Williamsburg area is the replacement of row houses with larger, taller, more modern buildings, in the form of small condominiums. Ironically, these buildings are often equally so tasteless that they serve as a fitting replacement for the simple row houses of old. But, even in the case of more innovative designs (Figure 2), they still stick out against the modesty of their neighbors.
Unlike the row houses, the neighborhood’s few light industry/warehouse buildings are being spared and rehabbed for commercial and residential use. Their superior constructions (usually brick or concrete) ensure their reuse. One such old warehouse in the neighborhood has for years stood with its paint peeling off the exterior: a marvelous patina that exposed the layers of paint beneath its surface, creating a brittle, flakey, multi-colored skin that spoke of the age of this dignified edifice. The building’s upper floors have been converted into loft-style residences and artist’s studios over the years, while the first couple floors are still home to a light industry of some kind. At the ground level, this warehouse was written all over with graffiti: a testament to generations of taggers and artists, whose own layers of paint mirrored those pealing off of the upper façade (Figure 3). The building even has a peeling piece by the street-artist-turned-art-star, Swoon (on the left in Figure 4).
Late this summer, the façade of the upper floors of the warehouse was refinished and painted with a poor attempt at some shallow trompe-l’oeil effects (Figure 5). The ground level was spared for the time being, but you can see the paint encroaching (Figure 4). On the eve of the day when this urban text is painted over, I find myself wondering: what does it mean?
Indeed, the signs themselves—the graffiti tags—are hard to read. It would require a specialist in urban languages to decipher many of them, especially in their worn state. Once they are painted over, they will cease to communicate at all. Or will they? These only marginally legible signs (and I would contend that even if they were legible, the meaning derived directly from these signs would be minimal: pseudonyms and acronyms without referent) speak volumes within the context of this wall’s stratigraphy. Above the original layers of wall, in a phase of decline, when the walls weren’t painted for many years and became vulnerable to vandals, this layer of urban writing tells a little story about the buildings usage and frequency of habitation, as well as being a visual socio-economic indicator of the neighborhood at large. Wall writing is an iconoclastic act. Its public statement is a form of defiance to the edifice, but it also speaks to and about a community.
The layer of new paint that is being applied to this building will undoubtedly destroy this wall’s message and with it, a chapter in the history of East Williamsburg will be erased. Traces are often difficult for the archaeologist to find in urban contexts. The replenishment of renewal often destroys critical markers of the past. However, wall reading, which has proved a fruitful endeavor in the archaeology of architecture, can provide critical clues, which not only help contextualize archaeological finds, but also lend insight into that character of a community.
As my neighborhood changes, existing walls are reused and take on new meanings. They mirror my community, but in them I can also see the past.
--Matthew Teti, Brooklyn, NY


Katie M. Caljean said...

In regard to the symbolic meaning of graffiti in NYC, Jean Baudrillard offers an analysis of postmodern graffiti and its subversive role within the city in his 1975 article, “KOOL KILLER, or The Insurrection of Signs.” He contends that “signs don’t operate on the basis of force, but on the basis of difference” (80). Graffiti exists in opposition to the city’s official semiotics of order, logic, and geometry. Baudrillard further argues that “graffiti has no content and no message: this emptiness gives it its strength” (80). His culture-devoid theory of graffiti as an “empty signifier,” however, is an unsatisfying conclusion regarding the symbolic function of graffiti. As consumers of culture, we recognize that graffiti does indeed convey some sort of meaning, even if we are not versed in the urban vocabulary. The presence of graffiti in space, regardless of the intended meaning, conveys information... marking territory, private space, cool space, contestation of space, etc.

Colette said...

I would agree with Katie in contrast to Baudrillard to argue that graffiti is no “empty signifier.” Baudrillard’s view would give primacy to the action, the creation of a visible reminder of an individual committing an illegal act of defacement. The presumed iconoclastic intentions of the artist become the only meaning of the graffiti, which as an empty signifier with no referent can have no other inherent meaning. Yet rather than signifying nothing graffiti is a complicated and self-referential language only intelligible to those with a shared understanding of how to decode the messages. “Graffiti intelligence work” has even been utilized by the NYPD as credible evidence to prevent gang violence and support arrests.

Brandon said...

FYI, Bushwick doesn't begin until south of Flushing Avenue (i.e. Bushwick Ave isn't the border) That whole industrial zone around the Morgan Ave stop is technically Williamsburg (despite rumors/misinformation to the contrary)