“Everyone’s talking about the weather,” runs a loose translation of an old German political poster, “except us.” The slogan was used to parody a period railroad ad that trumpeted the Deutsche Bahn’s storm-resistant resilience, but it also attempted a deeper point: that meaningful politics is serious business, above the fray of such trivial, provincial preoccupations as the latest shower, hail, or frost.
In a recent essay at 3 Quarks Daily, Alyssa Pelish takes the other side of the argument. At first, she wonders whether talking about the three-day forecast might really be a sort of code obscuring some underlying purpose — functioning as a form of empathy, for example. Ultimately, she sees an even greater significance in sharing news about the weather: it provides one of the few “universally shared narratives” available to everyone.
It’s true that everyone experiences weather, full stop. But the way we do seems like it might be more effective at fostering individual communities rather than any single, universal one. Think, for example, of a snowstorm, when the collective, Herculean task of removing tons and tons of heavy, disruptive white stuff requires a city’s residents to work together — and, together, to interact with their government — at the most intimate, personal level.
Three years ago, people were still complaining that photo-sharing websites like Flickr were home mostly to “thousands of pieces of shit” — few good photos, endless amounts of clichéd snapshots that nobody really wants to see.
Since then, of course, Flickr has proven its worth by attracting plenty of good, serious photographers, and inspiring many more to improve their work and learn more about photography. It has also become something unexpected: a window into the past. Recently, a number of organizations, including Library of Congress, NASA and the Ville de Montréal, have put portions of their photo archives on the website, taking advantage of its user-friendly format and ready-made connection to social networks.
Private individuals have followed their lead, giving old film photos new life. One such photographer is Nick DeWolf, a American engineer who lived in Philadelphia, Boston and later Colorado, and who never left home without a camera. For decades, starting in the 1950s, he documented almost everywhere he went. After DeWolf’s death in 2006, his son-in-law began putting his photos online.
There are now more than 43,000 images in DeWolf’s Flickr photostream, with 20 more added each day. Among these are scenes of everyday 1950s, 60s and 70s life in cities like New York, Boston and Hong Kong, shot with the passion, curiosity and loose focus of an amateur.
Bill Brand’s “Masstransiscipe” installation in New York’s subway
I first noticed subway tunnel wall animations in Boston, where the long gaps between stations on the MBTA Red Line provides a captive audience. The animation, composed of dozens of stills that simulated movement as the train zoomed by, was an ad. The message: visit Vermont and its great outdoors, which certainly must have resonated with more than a few claustrophobes riding the crowded rush hour rails.
Animated ads in subway tunnels are expensive, both to design and install, which helps explain why the Vermont ad’s successor, a campaign for a movie “coming to theatres” last February, was only removed recently — with no ready replacement. But the medium is a popular one, if only because it’s relatively novel and rare. Examples from Budapest, Hong Kong, Kiev, L.A., Tokyo, and Washington, D.C. have been enthusiastically documented for upload to YouTube. And given that cash-strapped transit agencies have allowed almost every other subway surface to be colonized by ad space, including seats and whole exteriors of rolling stock, it was almost a logical next step.
Much of the credit for introducing these flipbook or zoetrope-like ads goes to two independent innovators: New York astrophysics student Joshua Spodek and Winnipeg animator Bradley Caruk. Spodek’s ads debuted in Atlanta in 2001; his company, Sub Media, continues to produce similar ads today. In 2006, Caruk won a Manning Innovation Award for his concept, which his partner, Rob Walker, first thought up while staring at the blank walls of Paris’ Metro. The company they co-founded, SideTrack Technologies, set up its first system in Kuala Lumpur and has since opened others across the United States — and beyond, to London, Rio de Janeiro, and cities in Mexico.
The approach to Hong Kong’s old Kai Tak Airport was notorious: planes that swooped down toward its runways passed so close to the rooftops of Kowloon City that they practically risked tangling their landing gear in laundry lines. Nearly thirty years ago, life on Neptune Road, hard by Logan Airport in East Boston, wasn’t quite so dramatic. But the noise pollution resulting from planes descending near its closely-packed triple-deckers was bad enough for the Environmental Protection Agency to become involved in monitoring the neighborhood’s habitability.
The EPA’s agents didn’t arrive in the area alone. As part of the agency’s Documerica project, dedicated to chronicling the environmental problems of the 1970s, photographer Michael Philip Manheim joined them, capturing the lives of residents living on and around Neptune Road. Recently, his 1973 collection of photos from the neighborhood became available, along with the rest of the Documerica photographers’ work, on the U.S. National Archives’ Flickr account.
There’s no longer a noise problem in Kowloon City, which has been free of din since Kai Tak Airport shut down in 1998. Neptune Road, too, has grown relatively quiet — but not because of any changes made at Logan. Beginning shortly before Manheim shot its streets and accelerating through the 1970s, the neighborhood was systematically acquired by Massport, the agency that runs the airport, and almost entirely demolished. Manheim’s photos are now among the few records of one of Boston’s long-forgotten corners.
The bridge where Summer Street crosses over A is literally the bowels of Fort Point, the shadowy bottom of a neighborhood where buildings reach different heights depending where they meet the grade of the street. In October, the underside of the bridge was covered in rainbow-colored, neon slinkys. Closer to the holiday season, it was bedecked in the brilliant illumination of hundreds of blue lights.
A block away, prints by Shepard Fairey — infamously arrested last year for promoting his show at the Institute of Contemporary Art, just a stone’s throw from Fort Point, with a guerilla street art installation — cover an abandoned diner, and ghostly photo portraits intermittently stare from walls.
This prevalence of open-air art — not even counting what’s in the neighborhood’s galleries and studio spaces — give one the impression that Fort Point’s art scene is thriving. But stroll just a few feet from the Summer Street bridge and a pair of homemade, laser-printed posters bearing the logo of the Fort Point Artist Community proclaim it an “endangered neighborhood”.
It was bad enough when they tore it down — now there’s the question of where to rebuild it. After the storm that swept through Hong Kong when the government tore down the Central Star Ferry pier in 2007, making way for a land reclamation project that is extending the waterfront by 300 metres, it was careful to avoid the same mistake when it removed the Queen’s Pier in 2008.
Instead of being knocked down, each piece of pier was carefully preserved and put into storage. Though it wasn’t particularly remarkable on its own, the pier was important as a symbol of British colonialism, being the place where British royals and Hong Kong governors landed when they arrived in Hong Kong. Together with City Hall and the Star Ferry pier, it formed part of a trinity of white Modernist structures that represented the straightforward ambition of postwar colonialism.
Now that the land reclamation project is well underway, the question is whether the Queen’s Pier should be rebuilt on the new waterfront, or in its previous location, on the shores of an artificial lagoon. The government is pressing for the former, which would allow the pier to continue functioning as a pier, but heritage activists insist on the latter. Yesterday, a group of them proposed that Edinburgh Place (the collective name for City Hall and its environs) be declared an historic monument, which would legally require the government to put the pier back where it originally stood.
It’s a Saturday evening and the Boston subway is packed. The train is stalled on the platform at Downtown Crossing station, and the car has been filling up for nearly thirty minutes. Tensions are rising. One new arrival finds me slumped in my seat, impatient:
“Aw, look at this!” he announces to the train. “This guy can go wherever he wants, but can I go to his neighborhood? I’m not hating on him. I don’t know anything about him. I’m just saying, I’m angry, and I want to take it out. I want to do something to him. Because times have changed. It’s gonna be like the new 70s.” He is middle-aged, black, bedraggled, carrying a dusty briefcase. He looks like he is struggling, but not destitute. As he begins to be surrounded by more impoverished riders – and more affluent targets – he finishes his rant, asks for the time, and starts wondering, incessantly, when the train will move again.
Cities by their very nature are points of attraction for dense masses of people, compelling exchange, activism, and interaction. But when the world starts to become unpleasant, cities begin to manifest the dark side of these normally positive activities. The shimmering skyline becomes a symbol of excess; public spaces become fora for unrest rather than green lungs or safety valves; begging, crime, protest, and selfishness become more rude, more common, more crude.
One of the beautiful things about an academic planning exercise is that you can indulge in a little flight of fancy. A recent exercise at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design let people imagine a temporary urban intervention in one of Cambridge’s famous squares.
A “square”, in Boston parlance, really just refers to an intersection between two streets, and fittingly, many of them do look like an afterthought. Kendall Square, home to MIT, is one example: when JFK decided it was going to be the headquarters of the US’ future space program, the entire area was cleared of its population. While that didn’t quite pan out, the area gradually became filled with high-tech spin-offs from nearby MIT. That, however, didn’t prevent Kendall Square from being filled with 70s campus-style architecture, which lent it a creepy extermination camp vibe quite at odds with homey (if a little staid) Cambridge.
The following is a little blurb about the proposal:
Kendall Square on a winter evening is bleak, empty, but also potentially atmospheric. Reminiscent of the menacing and enigmatic cityscape in Giorgio de Chirico’s metaphysical paintings, there is a psychological tension to this empty space that we seek to exploit in the installation Phantom City.
Boston is one of the most historic cities in the United States, but it’s managed to lose much more of its architectural past than it retains. Sacrificed to urban experiments from concrete piazzas to towers-in-the-park, generations of honeycombed alleys and densely-crammed pockets of housing have largely disappeared from the city center, their former presence registered only in ancient street plans and ghost-like remains. When I first moved to the area in the late 1990s, I would comb through books of old maps and photographs of the city – such as Jane Holtz Kay‘s Lost Boston – with almost the same enthusiasm with which I set off to explore what was left of the city itself.
The internet has grown to include a wealth of resources to help track down the lost urban fabric of past centuries – not the least of which is the Library of Congress’ vast database of historical photographs. But my interest was piqued this week, when I discovered that the Boston Public Library released its much more intimate, if eclectic, collection on flickr. The photos, prints, and postcards it contains present a city that is both immensely altered and curiously unchanged from its 19th century self, providing the contemporary viewer the opportunity to reconsider just which “history” preserved Boston embodies today.
I’ve always had a certain fondness for Boston. It was the first truly large city I visited, the first place that was effortlessly cosmopolitan, the first place that buzzed in an important-seeming way that was absent in the isolated and suburban city where I grew up. I was properly obsessed with it. I visited about once a year in the late 1990s, but even when I wasn’t there, I studied maps, poured over photos, read the Boston Globe and online discussion forums. Eventually, those regular visits stopped, and my fascination with Boston began to wane.
Last November, I sped down Vermont highways in a rented Toyota Matrix, on an impulsive road trip that brought me back to Boston for the first time in eight years. I was curious to see how the Boston of my memory stacked up to the Boston I would experience that late-autumn weekend. On a particularly chilly Friday evening, I wandered from Allston to Downtown Crossing and back again. Everything seemed vaguely familiar but strangely foreign. Maybe it was six years of living in Montreal, or maybe it was the rapid gentrification and upscaling that had occurred since 1999, but Boston seemed to have lost a certain big-city edge. It felt tame, relaxed, maybe even a little provincial.
My biggest problem was that nearly every inch of grime, disorder and unpredictability had been scrubbed out of large parts of the central city. There was some left around Chinatown, the edges of the South End, in Central Square, around Allston, but much of Boston seemed to have become similar to the park that replaced the old Central Artery: pretty but kind of a void.
It was a relief, then, to come across the Haymarket, which was as messy and lively as I remembered it. Here, just beyond the souvenir stands of Faneuil Hall and the Quincy Market, is a real street market — a wet market, as you’d call it in Hong Kong — selling fruit, vegetables and meat. It draws an eclectic and varied group of shoppers that stand in contrast to the more homogeneous tourist crowd nearby. It was here, more than anywhere else I visited on my brief return to Boston, that I got a feel of the city I remembered so fondly.
Chinatown was probably the oddest part of central Boston, mostly because it had yet to be scrubbed clean of its grit. This old Coke machine, randomly found in the middle of the sidewalk and stocked not with soft drinks but with Miller Lite and Budweiser, is a prime example.
Over the weekend, as he ate a slice of pecan pie, my friend Sam teased me for dwelling so much on the minutiae of urban life. “Next you’re going to be writing about doorknobs,” he said, “and you’ll have photos of all the doorknobs in Mile End.”
Not yet. Today, I’m looking at the public fire alarm boxes on the streets of Boston, which you can find throughout the city and its suburbs. “For Fire, Open Then Pull Down Hook,” they read. Pulling the lever activates a machine that sends a signal, by telegraph, to Boston’s fire department. While these boxes were once common across North America, they have almost all been removed or abandoned. Boston, however, has maintained a fully functional system.
Maybe that’s because they were invented there. Boston’s government commissioned the system in 1851, just five years after the invention of the telegraph, and the first box was placed into service in the spring of 1852. Since then, the number of boxes on Boston’s streets has risen from 40 to 1,259 (still down from a peak of nearly 3,000).
Even if the boxes are antiquated, Boston has no plans of getting rid of them. “Fire officials say the wireless world hasn’t negated the system’s value. They point to the Sept. 11 attacks, when cellphone networks became overloaded. And in a blackout, they say, people can’t recharge their cellphones,” reported the Boston Globe in a feature published yesterday. Scrapping the boxes would save about $2 million per year. In fact, Boston nearly did get rid of them in 1983, but ultimately decided that they were worth keeping after all.
I’m glad they did. After all, if the fire alarm boxes were gone, what would I write about?