The leading myth is that the only possibilities for neighborhoods are gentrification or urban decay. Well-meaning liberals sometimes think cities face a choice between the bad days of the past and a gentrified future. Urban theorists invoke this same theme with the idea of the city as a ceaselessly changing organism that can either gentrify or stagnate. But these are all deeply misleading arguments, because they offer a false choice. No serious critic of gentrification wants to maintain the status quo. Instead of either gentrification or decay, cities could push for more equal distribution of resources and more democratic decision-making.
Nothing quite lays class warfare bare like house hunting. It makes you aware of both your own privilege and knee-jerk prejudices, but also your place in the hierarchy of things as you find out just house much houses in certain parts of town cost — and how much money you actually need to make to live there. (Houses in the Alberta district are going for half a million dollars — who has that kind of money?)
It also makes more clear the less obvious, to me anyway, reasons that certain housing trends perpetuate themselves. For example: in general, buyers of single family homes don’t want to live near renters, or multi-family housing units. Affordable housing buildings are right out. You might not mind living next to an apartment building, but if you lose your job and have to sell your house, will you be able to sell it? Even if you find someone who doesn’t mind living next to an apartment either, that person has to also consider selling it further down the line. Even if you don’t mind living next to an apartment building, and you have a dozen people interested in the house interested in buying your house and also don’t mind, they might still pass on it, worried that if they have to sell it down the line, they won’t be able to find someone who doesn’t mind living next to an apartment building.
So other people’s prejudices and preferences end up influencing your own behavior, reinforcing development patterns in place for decades. Weird stuff.
Anyway, we’re probably gonna land in East Portland (the area east of 82nd ave). I’ve been obsessed with this part of town for a while now, even before I thought we’d end up buying a house there.
I could read stuff about East Portland all day, but here are a few starters:
“Personally,” said Mark White, the former Powellhurst-Gilbert neighborhood association president, “I can’t imagine an urban planner at any time in the city’s history thinking, ‘You know, I think it’s a really, really good idea to cram tens of thousands of people into an area with no place to shop, no place to work and no infrastructure.’”
(The answer of course is that they didn’t think it was a good idea — they just didn’t want apartment buildings in their own neighborhoods. NIMBYism at its worst.)
The place we’re likely to end up living is quite nice. It has paved roads and sidewalks and grocery stores and access to public transit. But I get worked up thinking about how badly other parts of East Portland got shafted.
Despite its anointing by Coleman, Anonymous is not a vanguard; it’s the relic of an already twice-failed dream. Anonymous is the latest and most dysfunctional marriage between a particular strain of countercultural utopianism and the boundless faith in technology that first appeared in the 1960s. Fred Turner, in From Counterculture to Cyberculture, traces the evolution of what he calls the New Communalism into contemporary techno-optimism. In the 1960s, the New Communalists became convinced that traditional political action wasn’t working. They attempted to create utopian communes removed from society in order to practice the “politics of consciousness.” The commune movement collapsed, but by the 1980s some of its most prominent adherents had seized on the burgeoning Internet. These idealistic geeks conceptualized the Internet as an “electronic frontier” on which they could create virtual communities that lived up to the ideals of nonhierarchy and total personal freedom and fulfillment they’d tried to implement in the real world. In this new formulation, information technology replaced agriculture and ecology as the tools that would liberate us from corrupt society. The Internet became, as Turner writes, “an idealized political sphere…in which authority was distributed, hierarchies were leveled, and citizens were linked by invisible energies.”
The conflation of whites and Asians uses diversity to dramatize a crisis of diversity. When we hear repeated that Facebook, Google, and LinkedIn are 91 percent white and Asian, be warned that Asians are being used as human shields. When it comes to leadership positions, there is no “white and Asian” problem. There, it’s a “white and male” problem. Where Asians are overrepresented is in “tech” positions. Whites lead, Asians code. Solnit has been absolutely correct in her insistence on the parallel between Silicon Valley and the Gold Rush era. Then, as now, California profits off coolie labor.
From a 2011 BLDGBLOG interview with China Miéville:
. Novelists have an endless drive to aestheticize and to complicate. I know there’s a very strong tradition—a tradition in which I write, myself—about the decoding of the city. Thomas de Quincey, Michael Moorcock, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Iain Sinclair—that type-thing. The idea that, if you draw the right lines across the city, you’ll find its Kabbalistic heart and so on.
The thing about that is that it’s intoxicating—but it’s also bullshit. It’s bullshit and it’s paranoia—and it’s paranoia in a kind of literal sense, in that it’s a totalizing project. As long as you’re constantly aware of that, at an aesthetic level, then it’s not necessarily a problem; you’re part of a process of urban mythologization, just like James Joyce was, I suppose. But the sense that this notion of uncovering—of taking a scalpel to the city and uncovering the dark truth—is actually real, or that it actually solves anything, and is anything other than an aesthetic sleight of hand, can be quite misleading, and possibly even worse than that. To the extent that those texts do solve anything, they only solve mysteries that they created in the first place, which they scrawled over the map of a mucky contingent mess of history called the city. They scrawled a big question mark over it and then they solved it.
Arthur Machen does this as well. All the great weird fiction city writers do it. Machen explicitly talks about the strength of London, as opposed to Paris, in that London is more chaotic. Although he doesn’t put it in these words, I think what partly draws him to London is this notion that, in the absence of a kind of unifying vision, like Haussmann’s Boulevards, and in a city that’s become much more syncretic and messy over time, you have more room to insert your own aestheticizing vision.
As I say, it’s not in and of itself a sin, but to think of this as a real thing—that it’s a lived political reality or a new historical understanding of the city—is, I think, a misprision.
BLDGBLOG: You can see this, as well, in the rise of psychogeography—or, at least, some popular version of it—as a tool of urban analysis in architecture today. This popularity often fails to recognize that, no matter how fun or poetic an experience it genuinely might be, randomly wandering around Boston with an iPhone, for instance, is not guaranteed to produce useful urban insights.
Miéville: Some really interesting stuff has been done with psychogeography—I’m not going to say it’s without uses other than for making pretty maps. I mean, re-experiencing lived urban reality in ways other than how one is more conventionally supposed to do so can shine a new light on things—but that’s an act of political assertion and will. If you like, it’s a kind of deliberate—and, in certain contexts, radical—misunderstanding. Great, you know—good on you! You’ve productively misunderstood the city. But I think that the bombast of these particular—what are we in now? fourth or fifth generation?—psychogeographers is problematic.
My own interest in graffiti dates back to my first teenage introduction to hip-hop culture in the mid-1980s, when the first images of New York subway art started to make their way over the pond in magazines and, much rarer, snippets of TV alongside those first rare glimpses of block parties, scratch DJs, rappers, and breakdancers. Apart from their raw visceral energy, both hip hop music and graffiti struck me as intensely science-fictional. Both are about the appropriation of technology to create something new?—?hip-hop taking samplers and turntables to generate new sounds they weren’t designed to make, and graf taking car repair paint and the very architecture of cities to create new visual spaces and canvases. They are, perhaps, the most literal expression of William Gibson’s famous cyberpunk-defining phrase ‘the street finds its own use for things’.
Gibson’s early works, and those of his many lesser imitators, would herald the hacker as the rebellious hero of the future; a trope that would immeasurably shape everything from political activism to venture capitalism in the decades to follow. Perhaps the stereotypical image of the hacker as lone digital warrior, skulking over keyboards in screen-glare lit rooms seems very far removed from the image of the spray can welding, shadow dwelling, trespassing graffiti writer, but the two subcultures share a startlingly similar set of goals, values, and approaches: both look to subvert existing infrastructures and systems, both value one-upmanship and bragging rights, and neither can resist the illegal thrill of breaking-and-entering?—?whether physical or virtual?—?even when the risk of being caught may well lead to ruthless, draconian punishment. Both also share, perhaps most importantly, an aesthetic obsession with the future?—?something apparent in the work of artist Leonard McGurr, better known as FUTURA 2000.
“Think of a City is a new storytelling project, where a number of artists from around the world build a city, page by page.” It’s like an exquisite corpse — each artist draws a page then hands it off to the next. The project was created by Alison Sampson and Ian MacEwan.
One could argue that the resurgence of our cities does not necessarily portend the fall of the suburbs. But while many cities have been benefiting from an influx of wealth, the suburbs have been suffering a rise in poverty. From 2000 to 2010, the number of poor in the suburbs or the nation’s largest metro areas grew by 53 percent to a record 15.3 million. And while poverty has increased in cities as well, the growth rate in the number of poor living in the suburbs was more than twice that in cities during the decade—and the suburbs are now home to the largest and fastest-growing poor population in the country. This isn’t just the Great Recession at work; as early as 2005, the suburban poor outnumbered their city counterparts by almost a million. “We think of poverty as a really urban phenomenon or an ultra-rural phenomenon. It’s increasingly a suburban issue,” says Elizabeth Kneebone, Brookings fellow and coauthor of a recent Brookings book on the topic, “Confronting Suburban Poverty in America.”
But as with most things, decay isn’t evenly distributed. More affluent suburbs are “revitalizing”:
Some developers have actually turned their focus on these dead or dying malls. Ellen Dunham-Jones, architecture professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and June Williamson, associate professor of architecture at the City College of New York, have documented this phenomenon in their book, “Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs,” a comprehensive look at efforts to retool, reinhabit, or return to nature abandoned suburban forms. In some cases, this means turning gargantuan forgotten malls into hip, urbanized residential villages. One such experiment is under way in Lakewood, Colorado, an affluent suburb west of Denver. The former Villa Italia shopping mall, a 1.2-million-square-foot indoor mall built in 1966 that had fallen on hard times, has been turned into Belmar, 104-acre pedestrian-friendly community that has apartments, condos, town houses, office space, artists studios, and a shopping and entertainment promenade on twenty-two walkable, urbanized blocks. Now, instead of turning into the mall’s giant parking lot, you end up cruising along a downtown main drag, Alaska Street, which is lined with old-fashioned streetlights, coffee shops, boutiques, and restaurants. There are more than a thousand housing units, which range from town houses to loft condominiums to small-lot single-family homes, as well as a row of ground-floor artist studio and business incubator spaces. A public art project called “Urban Anatomy” has installed small works of art and fragments of poetry on manhole covers, sidewalk joints, and grates throughout the development, highlighting overlooked details of the urban environment.
The whole setup is definitely still suburban—the new urbanized village includes a Zales, Yankee Candle, and Sur La Table—but these suburbanites can leave their loft apartments on foot, pick up an espresso, and go hear a poetry reading, all on a site where Foley’s, Dillard’s, Montgomery Ward, and JCPenney once sat. There are dozens of these projects at other malls around the country. “It’s time to let the suburbs grow up,” Dunham-Jones says.
Alexis Madrigal on his quest to find the first recordings of the urban soundscape:
Could I go back a hundred years and listen to New York or Paris?
When it comes to film, you can see all kinds of old places. Sometimes even in high resolution, thanks to the work of archivists like Rick and Megan Prelinger. These films are incredibly important records for historians and citizens alike. They give us eyes in the past.
There’s an amazing film sequence of San Francisco in 1905. A camera was placed on a streetcar and driven down Market Street, the diagonal that cuts through the city’s core. Pedestrians, cars, carts, horses, the whole dizzying array of urban life before electricity and the automobile turned our cities inside-out. We recognize our buildings, but not our city. Similar recordings exist of most major cities.
I figured that there had to be similar documentation of the metropolitan soundscape, or any soundscape really.
Even as the New York Times and its ilk now use hipster-bashing to delegitimize the new political awareness among the same un- and underemployed twenty- and thirty-somethings — previously taken to task for their avoidance of politics — the same bashers employ this all-purpose dummy to ventriloquize their own refined and slightly ridiculous consumption habits.
And while Rupert Murdoch’s reactionary gazetteers at least acknowledge the ongoing, and (in the case of 13 Thames Street) partly political character of the evictions in which they delight, the enlightened New York Times will always opt for the “fucking hipster” show — the 21st century bourgeois liberal’s preferred flavor of minstrelsy — over any ‘hard times’ depiction of downward mobility among artists, anarchists and other riffraff.
That, after all, could depress today’s gentrifiers or tomorrow’s property values.
Despite his scholarly bona fides—his doctoral work in geography at Royal Holloway, University of London had garnered wide acclaim—Garrett scarcely looks the part of an academic, neither tweedy nor fusty. Thirty-two years old, with a trimmed goatee and a mop of straight brown hair hanging over black plastic frames, he grew up in Southern California and ran a skate shop before deciding to pursue a doctorate. His face, which is frequently lit up in mischievous, eyebrow-raised delight, still bears the pocks of over a dozen piercings he dispensed with in the interests of maintaining some veneer of academic respectability.
But it was his doctoral research itself that was perhaps most punk rock. His dissertation in human geography, which he had defended the previous year, was entitled “Place Hacking.” The title came from his argument that physical space is coded just like the operating system of a computer network, and it could be hacked—explored, infiltrated, re-coded—in precisely the same ways. He conducted a deep ethnographic study of a small crew of self-described “urban explorers” who over several years had infiltrated an astonishing array of off-limits sites above and below London and across Europe: abandoned Tube stations, uncompleted skyscrapers, World War II bomb shelters, derelict submarines, and half-built Olympic stadiums. They had commandeered (and accidentally derailed) an underground train of the now defunct Mail Rail, which once delivered the Royal Mail along a 23-mile circuit beneath London. They had pried open the blast doors of the Burlington bunker, a disused 35-acre subterranean Cold War-era complex that was to house the British government in the event of nuclear Armageddon. The London crew’s objective, as much as any of them could agree on one, was to rediscover, reappropriate, and reimagine the urban landscape in what is perhaps the most highly surveilled and tightly controlled city on earth.
Now this is the sort of infographic I can get into:
Kowloon Walled City, located not far from the former Kai Tak Airport, was a remarkable high-rise squatter camp that by the 1980s had 50,000 residents. A historical accident of colonial Hong Kong, it existed in a lawless vacuum until it became an embarrassment for Britain. This month marks the 20th anniversary of its demolition.