Kunstler, Techno-Ambivalence, and the Social Arts

The City Rises. Umberto Boccioni (1910).

The American Conservative’s New Urbs section has an insightful new piece by James Howard Kunstler, entitled “The Infinite Suburb is an Academic Joke“. In a dryly funny essay, Kunstler takes on the group-think of elite urban planning schools for its one-sided techno-optimism (or, as he calls it, techno-narcissism). Among other errors, he cites the willingness to buy into an anodyne vision of driverless cars, drone deliveries, and “smart” suburban neighborhoods (whatever those may be), as the emerging vision of default American settlement patterns. He also notes a continuing obliviousness to energy considerations; and a subtle disdain for traditional urbanism (in spite of its time-proven viability). It’s an important piece, worth reading.

Like Kunstler, I find it increasingly difficult to abide the almost willfully-blind optimism of those who believe that the answers to humanity’s most profound civilizational challenges will be found through information technology. Faith that IT can be used to solve our most intractable problems is fast becoming the 21st century’s version of the faith in social science (and its attendant ideologies) that led to so many catastrophes in the last century. Both have a common origin: an intoxication with the recent achievements of human ingenuity supporting a fallacious belief that our technical genius can somehow (and soon!) be systematized into processes that will resolve human problems (e.g., individual psychology, law and culture, and political economy) that have always plagued civilizations; and that have always been best addressed through social arts that draw, in the words of Holmes, on experience — not logic.

Techno-optimism doubles down on the essential fallacy of the 20th century, while a close study of tradition — including traditional urbanism, in the world of planning — learns from the mistakes of the past. By no means would I advocate a blind adoption of past practices. But a conscious adherence to those that have worked is defensible. Techno-optimism, on the other hand, is the product of a broader fallacy of conventional wisdom in our time: one which holds that because we now have the tools to do things that people in the past have been unable to do (or, similarly, because we have access to information that previous generations did not have), we are ipso facto smarter than any generation that has lived before us. And yet, in fact, the opposite may be true: because information is so readily available, we commit less actual knowledge to our memories; and because we have advanced, technical tools that carry out so many repetitive tasks, we learn fewer hard skills, and fewer of the granular nuances of those that we do learn. A more cautious approach would acknowledge that the more rigorous demands presented by the technical limits of the past may have honed a more refined set of skills in the practitioners of those times, and that we may have much to learn from studying the time-tested arts of social customs.

The traditional Western social arts include law, religion, philosophy, rhetoric, fine arts (to an extent), politics, and (sadly) war. To these I would add business, which was not studied as an art in Classical or Renaissance/Enlightenment times, largely because it had not yet emerged as a topic of legitimate inquiry. Nevertheless, business clearly fits with the other social arts more than it does with any of the hard sciences. I use the term social arts here, intentionally, to make a point. These studies are much broader and more flexible than the modern social sciences. They are studies of how human behavior can be influenced, managed, or changed. They are understood to be skills that draw on long experience; the art in these fields consists of having gained the sophistication to intuit which tools to use for particular effects in a certain set of circumstances. It is presumed that their subject matter is too complicated to be understood with total precision, or to be addressed by a universal approach. In some ways the work of a social artist appears to resemble the work of a magician more than it does the work of a scientist. A judge’s gavel, an architect’s pencil, or a priest’s censer may seem more like a wand than like a tool. Legal, aesthetic, and religious doctrines may, at times, seem more like spells or superstitions than hard knowledge. And yet the practitioners who know something about their craft are able to achieve results. Urban planning, too, is a social art — not a first level social art, like those named above; but a subordinate hybrid of fine arts (i.e., architecture) and law. Today, because of zoning and other factors, politics and business have taken on much greater influences than they traditionally held. Religion has become an increasingly peripheral factor in Western planning. Nevertheless, the attempt to turn urban planning into a science gave us strip malls, cloverleaf interchanges, and Euclidean zoning; urban planning, properly treated as an art, gave us Pompeii, Venice, and the great cities of the Victorian period.

The abandonment of the time-tested wisdom of the social arts in favor of the radical, but more technical (and therefore apparently more sophisticated) experimentation with the social sciences was not entirely stupid or negative; it was likely a necessary step in the process of incorporating the sudden flood of new knowledge and experiences that had come with the rapid expansion of science and industry in the 19th century. But it was too one-sided, and it became a prime example of a proverbial baby being thrown out with the bathwater. At least some of the nihilism and anomie of the 20th century can be attributed not just to the pace of scientific change, but to the dumping of cultural knowledge that might have helped to ground individuals, communities, and their institutions while those larger technical changes were being processed. It is not an unrelated phenomenon that, over the same time, buildings devolved from cathedral architecture to Brutalism; or that governments devolved from kingdoms and representative democracies to include fascism, communism, and consumer capitalism. The danger of our current intoxication with technology is that we may go through a parallel, and perhaps greater, dumping of valuable cultural knowledge to the one that took place in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The value of studying the traditional methods that have worked throughout history is that they can provide a context for processing rapid change.

Spotlight: Rockaway Blues and Coney Island Rain

Rockaway Blues & Coney Island Rain

Click on the above photo to see my full album.

Just some pictures from a couple of trips to New York City beaches this summer. Honey and I made it to Rockaway Beach on an absolutely beautiful day, in early August. The ocean was about as blue as you could imagine, and the beach has been completely remade with white sand and a new boardwalk, replacing the one that was destroyed during Hurricane Sandy. The little things in the photos that look like pebbles are actually tiny clams, coming in by the thousands that day with each wave, then burrowing their way into the sand when the water went out. It was really something to see.

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About a week later, I wound up on a work-related field trip to the coastal parts of Brooklyn, to observe the progress that my program has made in rebuilding private homes in Gerritsen Beach, Sheepshead Bay, and Coney Island. We were supposed to have a happy hour afterwards on the Coney Island Boardwalk, but it was cancelled because of the intermittent (but occasionally heavy) rain. The neighborhood was eerie and abandoned, with wet streets and empty sidewalks. I thought it was photogenic. It’s interesting to me how many of the individual artifacts of the Coney Island my grandparents would have visited are still there — Nathan’s, Luna Park, the Cyclone; and even more interesting, from a planner’s perspective, that this famous seaside spot has never been redeveloped.

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At the end, I included just a few pictures of the work that our program is getting done in the Sandy-affected parts of Brooklyn. It has been a long process getting to a point where physical progress can been seen in these places. Everyone who has been involved in since 2013 should be proud of what he or she has done, especially the homeowners and tenants who have stuck with it for the long haul.

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Park Lamps and Acorns

 

A bunch of green acorns just caught my eye while walking in Eagle Rock Park. Interesting how subtly the shapes of nature were incorporated into the standard forms of traditional 19th century urbanism. A lot of the old street lamps look like flowers. I think its an artifact of the mainstreaming of certain elements of cultural Romanticism by the late Victorian period.

Shaping the Urbanism of Victorian America

 

I’m happy to report that The American Conservative, in its New Urbs featurehas published my article about the key factors that shaped Late Victorian urbanism in the United States. My piece focuses on this period before zoning, and explores the physical, legal, economic, and cultural phenomena that drove neighborhood development in the absence of comprehensive plans. I chose this period because it has intrigued me for a long time; and because so much of the New Urbanism of today seems to be imitating the forms of that era without necessarily asking the important questions about the larger context that created them. TAC deserves credit for taking a lead in discussing the important dynamic between urban form, society, and sustainable communities. Here’s a nice piece by executive editor Lewis McCrary about the walkability of New Jersey shore towns, many of which I have walked through, and many of which have an urban fabric that dates from the same period that my article describes.

Spotlight: George Inness in Montclair

George Inness

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Just some pictures from a recent visit to the Montclair Art Museum, which has a nice collection of George Inness paintings and personal effects. Inness was one of the best artists of 19th century America, specifically, the Northeast. A native of the Hudson Valley, he was sometimes associated with the Hudson River School, but he maintained a distinct approach that defies classification. His palette reminds me a little bit of Van Gogh’s, but his subject matter is much more realist. He spent a bunch of time in Montclair, taking the countryside around Newark as inspiration for a number of his paintings.

Spotlight: Around the Hoboken Rail Yards

Around the Hoboken Rail Yard

Just some night photos from the Hoboken rail yards and surrounding blocks. (Click on the above photo to see my full album.)

As much as Hoboken has become a bland commuter city, a lot of the industrial-era infrastructure survives. The waterfronts in Hoboken, Jersey City, and Weehawken once served as a break-of-bulk point for all rail lines coming back to Port of New York from the American interior. In the 19th century, passengers and freight bound for New York City would leave the rails at these stations along the New Jersey waterfront to be ferried across the Hudson River to Manhattan. In the early 20th century, the Hudson Tubes made passenger service into Manhattan possible; and, later, the tunnels to Penn Station allowed the main lines to enter the city. Today, the PATH system still links the sites of three of the old New Jersey terminals: Hoboken (once the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western terminal), as well as Newport (once the Erie terminal) and Exchange Place (once the Pennsylvania Railroad terminal). Here is a map by James R. Irwin, showing the old setup:

new_york_city_railroads_ca_1900

Spotlight: The Surrogate’s Courthouse of New York County

Surrogates Court
One the most striking buildings in the New York Commons area, the Surrogate’s Courthouse was begun in 1899. In addition to housing the Manhattan probate court it is home to the municipal archives and is therefore sometimes called the Hall of Records.

The Surrogate’s Courthouse has some of the city’s most ornately detailed interior masonry, including heavy columns that support a mezzanine that encircles a soaring atrium. Building materials include variegated colored marble, like something out of classical antiquity. Natural lighting is sparse, and late-Victorian lamp fixtures do not fully compensate. It is enough to create a pervasive gloominess throughout the building. Together, these elements set the tone of its echoing corridors, which comprise a labyrinth of beautiful but eerie spaces — so fitting for a courthouse of this jurisdiction. This building is about death and dusty records, and its architecture reflects those cold facts through darkness and weight, but it also captures the somber and transcendent role of the law in making permanent the legacies of those who are gone. To be anodyne was not a priority in 1899.

Click on the above photo to see my full album.

Pierpont Morgan: Rome and the Romantics

Rome and the Romantics
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An excellent exhibit at The Morgan illustrates the study of Rome by 19th-century visual artists and writers; the influence of the Grand Tour on artists of the time; and the maps and guidebooks that visitors followed. I think the images speak for themselves. My Flickr gallery has a lot more images, some of which are very close, for detail. Not too many exhibits combine ancient urban planning, Romantic-era art and writing, and 19th century cartography. We really enjoyed this one!

The Jewish Roots of Planned Green Space

Howard's concept of the Garden City, visualized.

Howard’s concept of the Garden City, visualized.

A recent piece in The New York Jewish Week looks at the Torah concept of migrash. Rabba Sara Hurwitz’s description reads like an early outline of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City. I also find it interesting that the financing structure Howard proposed is much like the one described by Herzl in Old New Land, and the one used to fund the original limited-equity coops in New York City (which grew out of Jewish labor unions on the Lower East Side).

Preserving New Jersey’s Palisades

A nice partial history of the Palisades Interstate Park, beginning in the late 19th century, when the cliffs were being blasted to make concrete for Manhattan’s early skyscrapers, and continuing through its heyday during the New Deal. (I didn’t know that so many people used to swim in the Hudson!)

This park is still one of my favorite spots. I worked there when I was a teenager, in the summers of 1998 and 1999. I read most of the Beat generation’s greatest hits while manning the ticket booths — at the Englewood and Alpine Boat Basins, the Undercliff Picnic Area, and Ross Dock — selling tickets to visitors who had come to picnic, launch boats, or just explore the woods and cliffs. It remains one of the most pleasant employment experiences I’ve had.

Nice footage of cars and fedoras. The narrative begins around 2:43.

Spatial and Tactile Urbanism

TwoBridgesJune2016My interest in urbanism has recently shifted to absorbing its visual elements and textures. Working in Lower Manhattan has given me a chance to process the city’s massive urban fabric much more deeply. I use my lunch hours to explore, and I try to go slowly. Also, my S.O. lives in Battery Park City, so I’m often here in the evenings. Being in the city has led me to more photography and less writing. I’ve been able to absorb common law urbanism on a spatial, tactile level: walking the old blocks with their pavements of slate, cobblestone, and concrete; studying the varied architecture, from pitched-roof, colonial row houses to futuristic Art Deco skyscrapers; sitting on park benches in triangles and churchyards; touching the iron and stone and cement. It sometimes surprises me how much there still is to discover in this embryonic core of New York, and how the organic city still lives and exerts its patterns, in spite of all the modern forces that promote homogeneity.

Since I’ve had less to say lately, I’m going to start posting some of the pictures I’ve been taking, in place of frequent commentary. I will add links to Flickr albums with particular themes, and will backdate them to (roughly) when the pictures were taken. (I was hoping to embed entire albums directly into the LT page, but that turned out to be more time consuming than I can handle, given the amount of material I’d like to share. So, a cover photo that links to the Flickr album will have to do, for now). Hope my readers enjoy. And please do comment on the photos. : )

One last thing: if you have a Flickr or Yahoo account, please SIGN IN. Doing so will prevent you from having to occasionally click through distracting ads when navigating my albums. Thanks!

Spotlight: Pierpont Morgan

Pierpont Morgan
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The main building on this campus was J. Pierpont Morgan’s private house, and included an incredible private library, complete with mezzanines and bookshelves that turn to reveal hidden, spiral staircases. The architectural detail of this property, alone, makes it worth a visit. The displayed collection currently includes a Gutenberg Bible, an original manuscript by Mozart, and a painting by Leonardo Da Vinci’s teacher. J.P. Morgan was also an avid collector of cylinder seals from the ancient world (little spools of lapis lazuli, obsidian, or other hard materials, that were carved with a unique image and pressed into hot wax in order to verify the authenticity of a document or packaged good). Morgan became something of an expert on these, and many items from his collection are displayed. Fascinating stuff.

Land Use Imitates Art

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Here’s a three-dimensional, color map of Los Angeles, in 1909. It’s interesting. You can see the urban core that was beginning to take shape: the concentration of zero-lot line buildings, the canyons of concrete, the traditional green squares, the grid of warehouse blocks near the railroad tracks. Had it not been for the interruption by history — motor vehicles, modern zoning — a more traditional big city might have evolved there.

Here are a couple of surviving examples that I found of urban fabric in the core of Los Angeles, from which you could kind of envision an alternate pattern of how Southern California might have developed:

Broadway / 7th Street, Los Angeles.

Spring / West 4th Streets.

Just north of the urban core is Bunker Hill. You can see it in the bird’s-eye view, above, where the land rises behind the dense grid of streets, and the structures transition from commercial to residential. Most of what was once there is gone today. Here’s an old photograph, looking across Pershing Square:

Downtown-LA-1900

Raymond Chandler described the late stages of the neighborhood’s decline in his 1942 novel, The High Window, as only he could do:

Bunker Hill is old town, lost town, shabby town, crook town. Once, very long ago, it was the choice residential district of the city, and there are still standing a few of the jigsaw Gothic mansions with wide porches and walls covered with round-end shingles and full corner bay windows with spindle turrets. They are all rooming houses now, their parquetry floors are scratched and worn through the once glossy finish and the wide sweeping staircases are dark with time and with cheap varnish laid on over generations of dirt. In the tall rooms haggard landladies bicker with shifty tenants. On the wide cool front porches, reaching their cracked shoes into the sun, and staring at nothing, sit the old men with faces like lost battles.

In and around the old houses there are flyblown restaurants and Italian fruit stands and cheap apartment houses and little candy stores where you can buy even nastier things than their candy. And there are ratty hotels where nobody except people named Smith and Jones sign the register and where the night clerk is half watchdog and half pander.

Out of the apartment houses come women who should be young but have faces like stale beer; men with pulled-down hats and quick eyes that look the street over behind the cupped hand that shields the match flame; worn intellectuals with cigarette coughs and no money in the bank; fly cops with granite faces and unwavering eyes; cokies and coke peddlers; people who look like nothing in particular and know it, and once in a while even men that actually go to work. But they come out early, when the wide cracked sidewalks are empty and still have dew on them.

The urban fabric of Bunker Hill was almost completely demolished in the 1960s under a massive redevelopment plan. For a sense of what was lost: George Mann, a Los Angeles photographer, took this picture in 1959:

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Grand Avenue / 2nd Street. Photo by George Mann, courtesy of Dianne Woods and the George Mann Archives. (Fair use.)

Update: The Lost Public Baths of New York City

IMG_3278A few years ago, I wrote a short piece about the lost public baths of New York City. Built around the turn of the 20th century, the public baths were meant to address the lack of sufficient bathing facilities in areas with (1) high concentrations of old-law tenements and (2) no public beaches. They were concentrated on the east side of Manhattan.

This summer, I came across one of the bath buildings that still remains. Here’s a picture that I took on July 4th of the Free Public Baths at 23rd Street and the East River, which has now been converted into a public swimming pool. Still, the original inscription remains on the architrave:

FREE PUBLIC BATHS | CITY OF NEW YORK

The mix of tenements that once characterized the area — and which gave rise to the public baths — is long gone. The adjacent super-blocks are now occupied Peter Cooper Village (a formerly middle-income housing development) and the VA Hospital.

Here’s the structure, and its context, on Street View:

Anti-Urbanism and Edward Hopper?

Night Shadows. Edward Hopper (1921).

Night Shadows. Edward Hopper (1921).

I recently read Tom Slater’s 2002 article, “Fear of the City: 1882-1967: Edward Hopper and the Discourse of Anti-Urbanism.” It’s really a fascinating piece. Slater argues that much of the imagery in Hopper’s art is part of a deep and old tradition of suspicion of cities in the American worldview. Slater claims that a “negative discourse of the city … began with the pastoral musings of Thomas Jefferson and was furthered significantly by the transcendental contemplations of Ralph Waldo Emerson, [and] grew stronger and became embedded in social life through powerful representations of urban malaise in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American literature, art, and social theory.” He then closely analyzes four pieces by Hopper — Night Shadows, Nighthawks, Approaching a City, and Sunday — to illustrate his thesis. I strongly recommend reading the piece.

Slater cites Hopper’s childhood in then-rural Nyack, N.Y. as the source of the artist’s skepticism about city life, and he describes the contrast between the ideals of small-town America and the exploding urbanism of large, east coast cities that occurred in the late 19th century. Of Hopper’s relocation to New York City — where he would spend most of his life — Slater writes:

Hopper lived through a time of continuous changes to the cityscape, and changes in the neighbourhood where he lived, Greenwich Village, were as profound as in any area of the city. Hopper was dismayed by the ‘crushing of Washington Square’ by the erection of tall buildings around the park which he saw as ‘huge coarse and swollen mounds—blunt, clumsy and bleaching the sunlight with their dismal pale yellow sides’ (citation omitted). Such signs of unruliness and dislocation were serious violations of all that he had been brought up to believe, that humans should be in harmony with nature and situated away from anything which would disrupt this most Victorian, even puritan, way of existence.

(Slater, 141.)

It seems to me that by the late Victorian period, some of the contrarian hallmarks of early 19th-century Romanticism — especially, the idea that humans should make an effort to live in harmony with nature — had calcified into a set of bourgeois notions of propriety, in somewhat the same way as the countercultural values of the 1960s have been repackaged into the predictable platitudes of Whole Foods advertising, today.

Nighthawks. Edward Hopper (1942).

Nighthawks. Edward Hopper (1942).

Slater sees Hopper’s haunting imagery of dark, foreboding, and lonely urban scenes as part of a long (and presumably unwarranted) tradition of city-hatred in American thought, rooted in this culturally idealized view of nature. He cites this larger narrative as a key source of the American political establishment’s long hostility toward urban interests. In that, Slater identifies something real: There certainly is a tradition in America of ignorant hostility toward big cities. (Is it not the inevitable reciprocal for a country with a frontier mentality to also have some degree of contempt for those who choose to live in more thickly settled locations, rather than strike out for the West — or the suburbs?) But I would hesitate to assign Hopper’s work to that thread. His city scenes are layered: Though often dark and alienating, his settings are also mysterious, enchanting, and beautiful. Inhabitants frequently seem conflicted, or unfulfilled, or stoic, but not necessarily miserable. These internal contradictions remain true of large cities and their inhabitants today. To acknowledge them, and their inherent sadness, is not to malign the city. It is simply to observe it honestly.

Furthermore, one must concede the reasonableness of Hopper’s skepticism — if that’s what it is — about many of the circumstances that he depicted in New York and elsewhere. The early urban planning movement was made up of people whose biases were quite the opposite of anti-urban, and who were driven by precisely the same visceral and moral reactions that Hopper seems to have experienced in response to the excesses of industrial urban life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There is something undeniably harsh about a society whose excesses are not tempered by humane concerns. This is something that radical, reformist, and conservative thinkers all observed in Hopper’s time (and continue to observe, today). Its expression is hardly the hallmark of a puritanical, anti-urban mind. More to the point, as I interpret his images, the object of Hopper’s disapprobation is not urbanism, per se, but the heavy industry that pervaded cities in his lifetime, and the rapid change that it imposed on those in its path, including its disruptive impact on the individuals and traditions that required stability and patience to flourish. Though not mentioned in Slater’s piece, House by the Railroad has long struck me as one of the most haunting and tragic of all Hopper’s works. Notably, it is set not in a large city, at all, but in the small Hudson Valley town of Haverstraw, N.Y.:

Edward Hopper. House by the Railroad (1925).

House by the Railroad. Edward Hopper (1925).

Slater’s article is fascinating on many levels, and I strongly recommend reading the entire piece.

What on Earth are These Land Parcels?

In contrast to the orderly subdivisions of East Coast cities, or the predictably square farms that dice up the countryside of the rural Midwest and Texas, variations on the above mish-mash can be found on tax maps throughout the Intermountain West: long, rectangular parcels — some overlapping others — with no apparent rhyme or reason. Apparently, these parcel patterns are the legal remnants of old mine claims. Here’s a map showing claims in the Leadville, Colorado vicinity as of 1880:

COLeadvilleMines

1880 mine claims around Leadville, Colorado. Source: David Rumsey Map Collection.

This map makes you realize how intense the American mineral rushes really were. Claims covered every inch of land in the promising places, and even overlapped each other as new claims supplanted abandoned ones — or maybe the claims just conflicted with one another in the legal vacuum of the old West. The names claimants gave their mines are usually funny — names like Dead Broke and Legal Tender, Last Chance and Grand Prize.

Apparently, the similarities between the dimensions of different miners’ claims is not coincidental: Legislation at both the federal and state levels had attempted to standardize the rules for mining claims on a number of occasions; these efforts culminated in the U.S. General Mining Act of 1872.

Spotlight: Cripple Creek, Colorado

From Wikipedia:

At an elevation of 9,494 feet (2,894 m) and just below tree line, for many years, Cripple Creek’s high valley was considered no more important than a cattle pasture. Many prospectors avoided the area after the misnamed Mount Pisgah hoax, a mini gold rush caused by salting (adding gold to worthless rock).

On the 20th of October, 1890, however, Robert Miller “Bob” Womack discovered a rich ore and the last great Colorado gold rush began. Thousands of prospectors flocked to the region, and before long W. S. Stratton located the famous Independence lode, one of the largest gold strikes in history. In three years, the population increased from five hundred to ten thousand by 1893. Although half a billion dollars’ worth of gold ore was dug from Cripple Creek, Womack himself would die, penniless, on 10th August, 1909.

For the past 16 months I’ve been researching local business regulations around the United States. In the course of the work, I talk with police chiefs and mayors, and I read a lot of municipal ordinances. Over time, it’s become a telephonic tour of America.

Cripple Creek, the seat of Teller County, is a great example of late Victorian frontier architecture and town planning. It almost became a ghost town in the 1960s, but it’s apparently made a comeback with gambling and historical tourism.