In the Shadow of the City

Two from public radio:

(1) If you have 99 cents and 59 free minutes, listen to this episode from This American Life. The tagline reads: “Stories that take place on the edge of civilization, just out of sight.” There are 3 acts: (a) shipwrecked on an island off of Manhattan; (b) post-Katrina bus tours of New Orleans; and (c) smokestack emissions that the neighbors enjoy. All three are very good, although the first is my favorite. “I could smell my death in the air.”

(2) If you like Louis Sullivan, Chicago, early 20th century architecture and graphic art, then check out this book/dvd, also from This American Life. Ira Glass narrates and graphic novelist Chis Ware illustrates this story of a Chicago boy in the 1960-70s who obsessively explored and salvaged the Louis Sullivan buildings that were rapidly being torn down. Glass and Ware went on to create a small but beautiful book about Sullivan’s disappearing presence in Chicago.

If you don’t want to purchase either of these, both may just be available online. But they’re good enough that each is worth purchasing.


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More British Government Fearmongering

“There’s no way out for car tax evaders.” Does this shit even work?

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“Ironic Columns”

Pretty great. By Charles Moore. At the Williams College Museum of Art, in Williamstown, MA.

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Grigory Potemkin

Having posted about Kijong-dong and fake windows in Cleveland, I thought it was worth discussing Grigory Potemkin, the godfather of urban mirages. Potemkin was a Russian nobleman during the 19th century. Military general, governor, diplomat, and onetime lover of Catherine the Great, Potemkin is best known today for the 1925 film about the battleship that bore his name, and for the fake villages that he once had erected in the Ukraine, to impress Catherine as she travelled through the country.

Although historians dispute and largely deny the existence of these potemkin villages (as they came to be known), the story has become part of Russian vernacular. As Governor-General of Russia’s southern provinces, Potemkin was in charge of colonizing the most remote areas, including those of southern Ukraine. Struggling in this task, but not wanting to disappoint the queen, Potemkin ordered peasants to erect fake village facades and roaring fires for Catherine to see (from afar) during a state visit to the territory.

This happens all of the time, really. Architecturally of course, but also in other forms. Pheasants flash their plumes, people wear fake rolexes, and basement businesses mask their reality behind flashy websites. This summer BP bussed in hundreds of employees for a “clean-up photo-op” in the Gulf of Mexico during a visit by President Obama. Never mind that none of them actually did any cleanup work that day.

But the architectural manifestations of potemkin villages are definitely the most interesting. Kijong-dong, in North Korea, is a great example (see the post below). Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program, which has created over 3,000 murals in some of Philly’s worst neighborhoods, is arguably a direct descendant of General Potemkin’s original idea. But even the “normal” can include these traits. Consider this:

What is the owner of this McMansion trying to say? Are the exaggerated elements of this facade trying to convey an existence distinct from the owner’s reality? Ultimately, I think the litmus test needs to be whether the architecture is honest to the building. Frank Gehry, whose facades can be bizarre and misleading, nonetheless designs architecture that is true to the structure.

China, a playground for architectural anomalies, has many examples of potemkin villages. This article discusses villagers who could not afford to build modern homes, but whom nonetheless were forced to erect “modern” style facades due to zoning laws. Better yet, consider the 2008 Beijing Olympics. So much of this extravaganza was staged in a Potemkin-esque way: the little girl who sang in the opening ceremony was lip-synching – she was chosen for her cute looks while another, uglier girl was chosen for her singing ability. The fireworks were digitally enhanced before being broadcast around the world. Half-built buildings were crudely covered to appear complete. And slum neighborhoods (in actuality often historic hutong districts) were literally blocked off by 3 meter “culture walls” like this one:

The use of artificial facades does not always have to indicate a false intention. The potemkin village is, by definition, a misleading, deceptive, and propagandistic structure. Deceipt within architecture is not a bad thing, and architects often produce their best work by taking the visitor for an unpredictable ride. But when the deceipt is intended to hide an embarrassing reality, then it becomes “potemkin.” Perhaps the best way to distinguish this is to compare potemkin architecture to palimpsest architecture (this blog’s namesake). The palimpsest facade can mislead or conceal, but at its core it is merely an interwoven structure; the blending of different architectural or cultural cues, often from different time periods. Take the Penny Savings Bank redevelopment in the South End of Boston. They gutted the original structure, leaving the shell, and built flashy new condos on the inside:


That seems ok, yes? It’s preservation. It’s authentic, sort of. Sure, some people will walk by and be confused or even misled as to what this structure is, but that comes from the complexity of this buildings architectural heritage, and from the architect’s playful use of old and new. I acknowledge that die-hard preservationists hate this sort of new-age architectural recycling, but I’m a fan of palimpsest architecture. Stuff like this seems OK by me. It’s certainly better than potemkin architecture, even potemkin architecture that is trying to be historically sensitive. In fact, the quintessential potemkin stucture, in my mind, is the Library Company building on Chestnut Street, in Philadelphia. I’ll leave that for another post.

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Boarding over the Broken Windows Theory

Look closely at the picture above. Those aren’t real windows. A local Cleveland judge is testing a new method of dealing with the abandoned, dilapidated property that is plaguing the city: simply cover it up. Housing Court Judge Raymond Pianka secured a $20,000 grant to install fake doors and windows on 22 abandoned properties. The service is provided by a Chicago man who has artistically boarded-up over 1,000 homes in 10 cities. Check out the Plain Dealer article here.

This all centers around the broken windows theory, a core tenet of urban theory that is nonetheless often overlooked due to its pure simplicity (in short, that property neglect fosters an environment in which social norms or rules are more easily broken). “Nobody will care if I tag this wall because the window is already broken” leads to “nobody will care if I sell drugs on this corner because all the buildings around here are tagged,” etc. If you’re interested, read the 1982 Atlantic Monthly article that introduces this theory. Anyway, in short, studies all indicate a direct correlation between property maintenance and reduced petty crime.  Chris Toepher, the Chicago installer, has capitalized on this point, and sums it up perfectly to the Plain Dealer reporter:

It’s not so much that it looks like a window but that it looks like someone has really invested time and energy into it and is probably keeping an eye on it.

Toepher has set up a company, NeighborServe, to provide this boarding services. The before/after pictures are pretty impressive, and the results (as reported by the press) seem positive. Still, I can’t help thinking of an airplane cemetery. Imagine walking down a street where all the houses are boarded up like this.

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Bowling Alone (the structural skeleton)

Robert Putnam’s book, Bowling Alone, is very good. Its self-branded (and quintessentially American) subtitle is “the collapse and revival of the American community.” The book discusses how Americans are abandoning traditional social networks at an alarming rate, choosing instead to live increasingly isolated lives. This reduced civic and social interaction, according to Putnam, is a threat to the very fabric of American culture. There are some interesting statistics in the book. For example (from his website), over the last 25 years the practice of having friends over has decreased by 35%, family dinners by 43%, and attendance at club meetings by 58%. [As an aside, the book was published in 2001 and based on research conducted during the ’90s. That’s just before Facebook and other social networking technologies exploded. I wonder how Putnam’s thesis holds up today? Does online interaction recoup any of the losses associated with declined human interaction?]

This post isn’t about Putnam’s book, though. It’s about bowling alleys. Putnam uses bowling clubs as the poster-child of his argument, citing alarming declines in bowling club membership during the second half of the 20th century. Post-WWII, bowling was so popular that in 1947 President Truman received a 1-lane alley in the basement of the West Wing as a birthday present. He wasn’t a bowling fan himself, but did let his staff organise a White House league. By 2000, people were more likely to bowl alone than as part of a club. This shift has been financially devastating to the industry. Historically, clubs were the dependable revenue generators. League bowling once generated over 70% of all alley business. Today that number is less than 30% and still declining fast. A bit of history:

The invention of the automatic pinsetter led to a rapid growth in the number of bowling alleys and lanes in the later 1950s and early 1960s. The heyday of bowling was the mid-1960s, when there were approximately 12,000 bowling centers in the United States. Business predominately was driven by leagues where bowlers signed up to come once or more every week for at least 30 weeks and to participate in tournaments.

That’s from White Hutchinson, a leisure industry consultancy. They conducted a study on the shifting demographics of bowlers. Headline conclusion: it’s no longer a blue-collar, adult male sport. It’s now a middle class kid sport. Worth the read, if you’re interested.

But this post isn’t about the shifting demographics of bowlers either! It’s about the growing number of abandoned bowling alleys across the country (and world). As the quote above notes, in the 1960s there were around 12,000 bowling centers in the US. In 2007 there were just 5,498. Retrofitting an out-of-business bowling alley into a new business isn’t easy. There are architectural considerations (huge space, low ceiling) and economic ones (most alleys are located in the suburbs, where cheaper/better commercial space is easy to find). As a result, many of these 6,000+ former bowling alleys just lie empty. This makes for great ruins.

I won’t harp on about this, because the guys at WebUrbanist already have. Go check out their article, which includes some amazing photographs from Germany, Japan, and of course, America. There are lots of videos on youtube of abandoned bowling alleys. I’ll recommend just one, of Toyo Boru Bowling Alley in Kanagawa, Japan. The video was made by the author of the WebUrbanist post. If you’ve only got a minute, watch this video from 3:00-3:40. Notice all the bowling pins and balls that litter the floor, and imagine being there yourself:

Recently bowling alleys have made creative attempts at attracting new customers. Live music, retro-theme nights, even hosting weddings. To me, this looks like the death throes of an industry past its prime. But Ron MacDonald, director of the Oklahoma City Bowling Hall of Fame and Museum, claims that:

Bowling is not on the decline. There are still people who bowl and bowl in leagues. The enthusiasm and desire to bowl is still there.

Unfortunately, MacDonald is both factually incorrect and hopelessly optimistic. Bowling is on the decline. The numbers prove it and the countless abandoned bowling alleys serve as chilling physical evidence. The same article that quotes MacDonald also quotes Mike Hickey, president of the Oklahoma Route 66 Association: “this is just economics. We’ve seen this happen before … Cities evolve and change happens.” He’s right. Bowling alleys, just like Route 66 motels, will probably never be what they once were. The most successful alleys today have reinvented themselves into full-service entertainment centers – personal servers, gourmet menus, individual TVs, even private lanes. This is a far cry from the 1950s league culture, and probably will never attract the same number of regular followers. Which all leads to one question: what to do with all these empty bowling halls?

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TV Licensing – fear and intimidation work best

In the U.K., anyone who watches TV must pay a state tax for the privilege. Specifically:

“if you watch or record television programmes as they’re being shown on TV you must, by law, be covered by a TV Licence, no matter what device you’re using.” (from the TV Licensing website).

And no matter what content you’re watching. It doesn’t matter if you already pay £100/month for fancy satellite programming, or if you only watch commercially-sponsored networks. Everyone must pay £145/year (or, if you have a black & white set, £49/year). Senior citizens are sometimes exempt. Blind people can sign up for half-price (but deaf people still pay sticker). In 2009 this tax pulled in £3.49 billion, all of which went to the BBC.

For Americans, imagine that PBS not only required an annual subscription, but that it forced everyone to pay that subscription, even viewers who only ever watch ABC or CNN. Admittedly, the BBC holds a much larger market share in the UK than PBS does in the States. But it’s still very possible for viewers to never watch BBC content, especially in this modern age of globally-disseminated programming. So why does this tax exist? Past-precedent and a reluctance to reform. Taxation of broadcast media has existed in the U.K. since the British Broadcasting Corporation first began airing radio programming in 1922 (the fee back then was 10 shillings/year). The TV License was introduced in 1946 when postwar television broadcasting resumed. Back then the BBC was all you could tune into. There was one channel and the fee was £2/year. Even as private television programming expanded, the BBC was able to keep a tight grip on the licensing fee. Today, 15 channels each have a viewing share of ≥ 1% of the viewing public. Together they account for 68% of the total viewing share. Only 4 of these 15 channels are funded by the licensing fee. If you’re interested in this, there’s a good wikipedia page dedicated to the topic.

The role of the licensing fee is a debate for another time (I think it it sorely outdated and a misuse of taxation). This post is about HOW the BBC collects the fee. As you might imagine, almost every U.K. household should technically to pay this fee, and enforcement has been an ongoing issue. The fee is classified as a tax, making failure to pay a criminal offense. But how to catch these criminals? The BBC created a subsidiary, the TV Licensing Authority, to manage compliance and hunt down evaders. Their methods are Draconian. Check out this commercial:

That’s from circa 2007. Did you notice the helicopter blades, police sirens, and “knock-knock-knock” at the end of the commercial? That’s the universally-recognized knocking of the license inspector. It’s meant to send chills down your spine. There was a whole series of commercials and print ads with this theme. What’s worse is that they assume, without evidence, that any property not registered with a license must be an evader. One fed up Brit decided to stop paying his tax (legally, he also stopped watching broadcast TV), and has documented the 5 years worth of threatening letters he has received ever since. I’ve received some of these letters myself. In fact, the very first piece of mail I received to my U.K. university address was from TV Licensing. It read:

WARNING: This property is unlicensed. We’re writing to inform you that we have authorized Enforcement Officers to visit your home. If they find evidence that you are watching TV illegally, they can take your statement under caution in accordance with the relevant criminal law. … The maximum penalty is a fine of £1,000. We take this offense extremely seriously, and catch around 1,000 evaders every day. … We strongly advise that you act to stop our investigation by buying a TV License.

It’s all smoke and mirrors. These “Enforcement Officers” are private contractors with no legal rights to search your property. Those who hold out (and many do, based on principle or a desire to save some ££), rarely actually go to court. The TV Licensing Agency relies on fear to maintain compliance. In the 1960s they started driving around in “TV detector vans.” These vehicles had big rotating ariels on them and, purportedly, could identify television (even channel) usage within properties. I can’t resist this next video, an ad from the ’70s:

Public debate over the reality of these vans is intense. For its part, the TV Licensing Authority remains tightlipped. In a Freedom of Information request from 2008 the Authority refused to divulge the technology behind these vans, instead admitting that it “relies on the public perception that the vans could be used at any time to catch evaders.” It’s generally accepted that while these vans may have worked in the 1960s, the proliferation of electromagnetic-radiating home appliances today makes this a useless tactic. Still, public perception is everything. Fear, intimidation and shame can work wonders. Look at this neighborhood billboard:

I’m tempted to say that advertising this sort of information should be illegal. Legality aside, the mere existence of this big brother campaign is ridiculous, and really shows how bad the controlling tendencies of a government can get when unchecked. We’re not talking about the evasion of military conscription, disease vaccination or even car insurance. This is a tax on watching television. Consider this: the Daily Mail claims that at times there have been more women in jail for TV License fine defaulting than for burglary or prostitution. Instead of literally scaring citizens into paying this fee, Parliament should wake up and realize that a tv tax no longer makes sense. British advertising and compliance tactics have always been hardline, but public backlash to this tax and its enforcement techniques is growing for a good reason. As funny as the TV License Authority’s tactics are, they’re also scary. Reassuringly, recent advertising has done away with the fear-mongering and instead relies on the next best thing: a catchy jingle. I wonder how effective this latest ad campaign has been compared to the last one:

“Push a Little Button” is a long way from “It’s All in the Database.” There’s tons of stuff about this online. This is a good summary of enforcement techniques, and this is an encyclopedic resource for personal accounts, media articles, government links and official reports.

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