Physical Politics

Before I get into the meat of what I actually wanted to post about, I have a couple of quick things that are off topic. First, J actually has gotten around to posting a couple of times about Thailand, so you should all really go and read those. Second, In the last few days, I've read Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood twice, and I pretty sure it's on it's way to being my favorite book (I need to wait a couple of weeks to see how it weathers to say for sure), so everyone should really read it. Now on to what I really wanted to post about:

Boston, Massachusetts

I've been withholding my judgement on what I think about Menino's new plan to move the City Hall to the Fort Point waterfront. Mostly, I've been waiting to see if it's just Menino saying something so it looks like he has opinions or if it's something that could actually happen. Well, a few months have passed now and it seems that people haven't forgotten about it, so I figured it's finally time for my grand opinion to come out. So here's what I think... I'm in favor of it, but only if the old building is preserved. I know what you're thinking. Most everyone who has come out in favor of moving the City Hall have done so emphatically and loudly because the city would knock down the old building, and as a student of planning in Boston I obviously have heard (and participated in) numerous bashing sessions against the Government Plaza (which has actually been named one of the worst public spaces in the world, not just the US, the world). I am not, however, one of those people who is unable to resolve the apparent contradiction between hating Modernist planning and loving Modernist architecture. They simply aren't the same thing to me.

So let me try to explain my position. First though, I have to get into some of my general beliefs about cities and architecture. I believe pretty strongly the ideology and social beliefs shape the physical environment. And that goes beyond the obvious cases like Washington, DC being a symbolic tie to classical democracy, for example. Rather, I think pretty much everything is shaped by those forces. What I really mean by this is that I think that, instead of writing the history of the city from the perspective of the forces that shaped it, I think you can "read" the physical fabric of the city and figure out the forces that constructed them.

Let me give some brief examples from Boston. If you look at the earliest colonial maps of the city, most people note how random the layout appears. Especially when you compare it to other contemporary cities, like Utopian Philadelphia or Charleston, SC, you are really struck by how strange Boston is. This probably reflects a high value on individualism in the colony (or maybe not individualism, but rather a general distrust of government). If you look a little further, you'll also notice that the city was lacking in a defined hierarchy of spaces. There are various small squares spread throughout the city, not one central one. Important buildings (churches, government ect) are scattered throughout the city. This is what I call a centrifugal city. If you look culturally at Boston now, you'll still see the social leftovers of this beginning. For example, New Englanders still really, really distrust government. Look at Christy Mihos' (from the perspective of an outsider) completely insane campaign for governor last year. The man's main point was that he was just going to do whatever the hell he wanted but at least he wasn't with a party and people still voted for him. I really don't think there is anywhere by New England where a campaign like that would get a second thought.

Another good example is the creation of the Back Bay in the early to mid nineteenth century. By that time, the randomness of Boston's streets had stopped symbolising individual opportunity and instead were understood as symbolic of the disorder of immigration and Catholicism. What the Anglo-Protestants created for themselves in the Back Bay, by comparison, is the epitome of logic, order and cleanliness. When you look at a map of Boston, you can tell by the fact that that is the only part of the city which is on a grid that there is something different about that neighborhood, both socially and spatially (especially since the Mass Pike cut through and started serving as a "city wall" to protect the Back Bay from the neighborhoods to the south: the South End and Roxbury).

Boston, Massachusetts

So back to my point: why do I think moving the City Hall is a good idea and why do I think the old one should be preserved? I think the City Hall is also, symbolically, important to Boston's history. It represents the period of authoritarian Boston, when the West End disappeared and the city fell apart over busing and in the worst period of public housing. The building itself, with its brutallist facade raising fortress like over the windswept no-man's land of Government Plaza is a fitting memorial to all of the people who lost their homes or lived in poverty during this period. To remove it would be to give up or gloss over this period of Boston's history, and I think that's wrong. I think we need the building there to remind us what urban governance in the second half of the twentieth century was like. We need to remember Boston's dark age. My personal hope would be something like a Museum of the West End (how cool could that be, with so many residents still living who could contribute), Museum of Boston History, Museum of "Urban Renewal" or something like that. The square itself could still be redeveloped, but with building still intact.

But that doesn't mean that we need to keep the functions of our government there. To me, the movement to the waterfront makes perfect sense in our new post-industrial city. It symbolizes the democratization of space that has come with deindustrialization, namely, the fact that we've now regained the waterfront from its former industrial uses for uses of public space and recreation. Now, there are still a lot of questions that need to be addressed to make sure that the City Hall actually would be public space. For example, transit would need to improve to make sure that everyone can get there. But that's maybe for another post. For me, the idea of a waterfront City Hall perfectly fits into Boston's vision for the future, one that, hopefully, will be a whole lot more participatory then the past.



Advertising a la Montreal

Montréal, Québec

I commented in my last post that the tourist agency for Montreal had put up a billboard outside my window last week. It turns out that that was just the tip of the iceberg. Walking around the city last weekend, I found myself overwhelmed by advertising for Montreal. They actually have street teams out talking to people (and by the accents, I would say they were probably actually Quebecois). There is a little movie theater set up at Feneuil Hall (I would have taken pictures, but the camera is with J in Thailand) and one of the street walker guys had a cool backpack thing that supported a flat screen TV over his head. All around this seems like a huge investment from Montreal's tourism board.

This isn't the first advertising campaign that I've seen in the city for another city. Philadelphia and Quebec both have adds sometimes and Berlin did for a summer too (which I think is because Boston buys its street furniture from a Berliner company, Wall), but this is by far the most intense campaign I've seen. It's really got me thinking about the nature of tourism today.

I guess it's no surprise that urban space is being commoditized (that's what Disneyland is, isn't it?), but it seems like it's reaching new levels. It's almost like cities are being repackaged as baseball cards. You're given a quick and easy view of what's different about that particular one and then you can move on a collect the rest (I know I'm guilty of that). Why else would things like this exist:

create your own visited countries map

I'm not really sure where I'm going with all this, but it really does raise some questions for me. First of all, is this kind of advertising really good for a city? It's marketing something that is created by a huge group of people (all of the citizens of the city) but obviously the most tangible benefits only accrue to a small group. How can the city even gauge what kind of an effect this advertising has? And lastly, I can understand why a city like Philly, which has had some tough years, might need to advertise (by the way, Philly's "City of Brotherly Love" adds in gay neighborhoods around the country were pure genius), but why do cities like Berlin and Montreal, who have been at the top of the quality of life reports for years, have fairly strong economies and well-known cultural contributions need to do this kind of advertising?



Having missed posting for so long, I'm now in the awkward position of having too many things to say. What that means to you, the reader, is that I am going to say to much. You will read the first paragraph or two get bored and stop. Next time you see me, you will ask me about something that I wrote here, and I will look at you confused, since you should have already read it here. Or you will read the whole thing, so as not to antagonize me now that I have warned you. Which puts the pressure back on me (I said I had things to say... not that they are interesting). Also, I've been reading Haruki Murakami lately. If you read him too you'll probably have more idea what I'm talking about. Especially if you like metaphysical sheep.

I digress. The most important news is that J graduated:
Jessica's Graduation
She made it through with a 4.0 and got first in her class (Northeastern calls them Class Marshalls). Her parents and brother were out and a good time was had by all.

We took of the next day for a few days in NYC with her parents, who had never been there before.
New York, New York
Followed by a few days in Philly, just the two of us.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
More on that later...

During the time away, i was still finishing up the semester. I just finished the last of my thesis on Monday. I'm so tired of thinking about Montreal... hence all of the novel reading that's been going on the last week. I'm really liking both Murakami and Jonathan Lethem. I'm reading The Fortress of Solitude right now. It's about growing up in Brooklyn, but it really reminds me of growing up on my block in South Minneapolis (yes, I realize that mpls is a poor excuse for a real city). The way the kids roam the streets and have a world that the grownups don't really see resonates my childhood. In his world it's all out on the street, in mine it was up and down the alley, but still. There was just a section where the main guy got his bike stolen. I felt some pain for my awesome red bike that disappeared. sigh. (As an aside, the day I finished my paper on Montreal, Tourism Montreal put up a giant billboard directly outside of my kitchen window.)

On Sunday, J flew off to Thailand to work with an NGO for a month (after which she'll be visiting "family" in Ho Chi Minh City for a couple of weeks). She promised to resurrect her blog, so look out for that. I've talked to her once since she got there. So far she's lived through a small earthquake (which she said was probably God's wrath upon the earth for allowing Jerry Falwell to die, which is impeccable logic that the would have done the old man proud).

So, back to Philadelphia. What a cool city. As one of my friends at work said, it's like something halfway between Boston and New York. It's got the oldness and the row houses of Boston but the big city feel and ghettoness of New York (or at least that I'm told NY used to have before Giuliani had all the poor people sent to Siberia or whatever the hell he did with them). I really like a city that has a little bit of edge. Both Boston and New York are a little too clean. I like having some great graffiti and street art around:
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Yeah, I gots work ethic too, boy.
There was also a dude who did these incredible mural things all over the place. This is his "garden":
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
And here's a couple of his buildings:
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
No way you'd see that in Boston. Menino would have it re-facaded with red brick before you could say wicked.

We went to a Phillies - Cubs game, which was awesome. Great stadium. Ryan, don't worry about those wide concourses. If they do it right it'll be great. At Citizen's Bank Park, everything was just kind of open, so you could get your Hot Dog (or Cheesesteak) and still watch the game. And if you felt like it, you could stand there with your beer and watch from wherever you feel like. Also, the Fanatic could beat TC to a bloody pulp.

Also on the enjoyable list: The Institute of Contemporary Art at UPenn with J's friend Nicole and the crazy security guard lady. Oh, oh, and cell phone audio tours!!! What a great idea. And so democratic. And the theater where we saw Lookinglass Alice.

Horrible transit though. It's not good when your subway is creepier in the daytime then the streets are at night.

Anyways, I'm rambling, and no one really cares.

Last thing, I promise. I ran into James Howard Kunstler at work yesterday. He wroteGeography of Nowhere and The Long Emergency both of which I highly recommend. What an interesting guy. He said he's now writing a dystopian novel about the post-oil world.

Well, that's it. Congratulations for those who made it.


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