Category Archives: Cities

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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Philly Brownstoner

It's Nutter!

Just stumbled across a cool city site: Brownstoner Philadelphia. It’s a great mix of real estate, politics and the Philly scene. Way better than the Phillyist, despite being smaller. Want to know when the Mummers sell their headquarters, what people are saying about the bike-sharing program, or how much the condo next door is selling for? Check it out if you have any interest in Philly.

There’s a Brooklyn sister site (the original) that’s also pretty good. Anyway, nice to see some cool, well curated Philly news.

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Fake Towns and the World’s Tallest Flagpole

One more on North Korea. Have you ever heard of Kijong-dong? Most people haven’t, which is unfortunate. Kijong-dong is a town situated within the North’s half of the Demilitarized Zone. It’s one of only two towns that was allowed to remain in the DMZ when the zone was established in 1953 (the other being Daeseong-dong, on the South Korean side). Domestically, Kijong-dong is known as the “Peace Village.” Internationally, it’s usually called “Propaganda Village.”

The North would have us believe that Kijong-dong is a thriving, normal agrarian community. A state-published guidebook provides the following description:

In this village located in the Demilitarized Zone is the Panmun Cooperative Farm embracing over 200 households. The village has a kindergarten, creche [day care], senior middle school and a people’s hospital.

Oh yeah, and the world’s largest flagpole. That’s right. This patriotic plinth is 525 ft tall and carries a flag that weights 595 pounds! To put this into perspective, the flagpole is 150% taller than Big Ben, and just 30 ft shorter than the Washington Monument. When it rains, the water-weight of the flag is so great that they take it down to prevent structural damage. Anyone who knows anything about the DMZ and North Korea probably isn’t surprised to find this flagpole here. Not only is this the most heavily militarized border in the world, it’s also a hotbed for Korean Peninsula grandstanding. Until very recently, the North would broadcast propaganda 24/7 via megaphone to South Koreans living along the border. Guards are known to engage in hours-long staring matches with counterparts across the DMZ (usually a few hundred feet, but at places just a window away). Why not have the world’s tallest flagpole?

In fact, the world’s second largest flagpole (323 ft) is just a mile away from Kijon-dong, in the South’s DMZ village of Daeseong-dong (translation: “Freedom Village”). When the South Korean pole went up in the 1980s it actually surpassed its northern neighbor to take on the title of “world’s tallest.” Kim Jong quickly responded by adding some height to his own structure. This is popularly called the “flagpole war.” Both are visible in the image below.

The North Korean government presents Kijon-dong as a “typical” community – a model of the decent, industrious living that all citizens of this communist state enjoy. If only that were true. Kijong-dong is, in fact, a Potemkin Village designed in the 1950s to taunt the (then poor) South Koreans and encourage defectors. Nobody lives there. The buildings are structural shells – some are just facades! All are conveniently oriented to face the border. None of the windows have glass in them. There is a skeleton staff who maintain the facilities and the surrounding fields, but that’s it. Lights can be seen at night in some windows. But they’re always the same windows. At the same time. Every night.

Architecture has always been used as a form of political propoganda. Hadrian’s Wall was built to be a psychological barrier, not a physical one. Nazi monumentalism was meant to inspire, overwhelm, and enforce aryan superiority. Even Washington DC monuments act as physical reminders of American hegemony (along with, yes, memory and honor). The existence of Kijon-dong is unusual, though, because it fails to successfully convey a propagandistic message. Everybody knows that it’s empty (unlike the original – and mythical – Potemkin villages). It is so close to the South that this reality was known practically from the start. So why build and maintain it? Probably for the same reason that the Pyongyang Expressway was (needlessly) built, or that the capital has a subway system so uneconomical that it is only fully-engaged (and, some speculate, populated by actors) when foreigners are visiting. Image means a lot to North Korea, and projecting the right image along the DMZ is therefore important to them, even if the rest of the world sees right through it. In a way, Kijon-dong is a rural manifestation of three bedrock themes in Stalinist architecture: conservatism, monumentalism, and potential of extreme functionalism, if only it were properly occupied.

There’s much more to the DMZ than these two villages. Despite being the most militarized border in the world, it’s actually become a sort of nature preserve, harboring many endangered birds, the Amur Leapord, Korean Tiger and the ridiculous looking Asiatic Black Bear. Tourists can go there too. For a nice op-ed on visiting the DMZ, check out this Salon article.

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Welcome to Pyongyang


The chances of visiting North Korea as an American citizen are slim. The British have a (slightly) easier time. English photographer Charlie Crane spent over a year working to get permission to visit Pyongyang and photograph the city. The results can be seen on his website, and were turned into a very cool little book. How did he photograph one of the most secretive states in the world? Here’s his explanation:

For me the answer was simple: photograph what they want you to see. If there is no possibility of getting underneath the surface then the answer was to photograph the surface itself.

I don’t entirely agree with this. First of all, when you look at his photographs they don’t exactly portray North Korea in a positive light – as I’m sure the state would have wanted. Empty streets, portraits on cracked pavement, etc. Yes, he seems to have just photographed “what he saw,” but there is clear artistic license in his depictions and it’s not of the propaganda sort. You can read the press release of Crane’s book here. It states that Crane’s photos are done “with the full consent of both the authorities and the subjects” (I agree), and that Crane “adopted absolute neutrality” (I don’t agree).He chose for the dining tables to be unoccupied, the subway hall empty. Yes, it may be showing off the grandeur of the spaces, but to a western audience there is definitely something stiff, austere and depressing about these shots. These shots are definitely choreographed. For an example of purely observational (or even overtly “state sanctioned”) western photography of North Korea, look at Eric Lafforgue’s website. It depicts a much more appealing North Korea.

Second, Crane’s involvement with the North Korean government feels a bit too close, even for a book that advertises itself as being compliant. I realize this contradicts the first point, above, but the cosy relationship with the state makes one question the authenticity of the shots. Not in terms of whether or not they were staged (they almost certainly were, a little), but rather in terms of how free the photographer could be, even within the constraints of state-supervision? The book was produced by Nicholas Bonner, a British expat living in Beijing, AND by the Korean International Travel Company – you guessed it, North Korea’s official state-run tourism company. Bonner has a close relationship with Kim Jong-il’s government, having produced state-approved “cultural documentaries” and having run, for the past 20 years, a tour company with “unprecedented access” for foreigners. You can check out trailers to the films on the tour company’s website. Maybe this was Crane’s only viable option to get in, but how much did it taint his work, beyond the intended amount? Bonner and Crane claim that their guides trusted them, but also that they “did nothing to abuse that trust.”

Finally, I do think that it’s possible to get underneath the surface. It’s hard, obviously, but not impossible, and it’s dangerous to make such a claim. Here are some BBC shots of the “real” North Korea. Not exactly muckraking, but clearly less filtered. Still, Crane is an artist not a journalist, so perhaps these criticisms are too harsh. However he intended to portray the country, and however the country intended to guide his portrayal, these are still absorbing photographs.


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Abandoned space is a theme that will probably show up here regularly. Distinct from “vacant” or “unused” space, abandoned space is entirely cut loose. Owners, neighbors, speculators and government all wash their hands of the property (by choice or by circumstance) and it is left for nature to reclaim. A subtle but striking difference from merely unused space, especially when seen in person. Photos just don’t do it justice – if you ever have the chance to visit an abandoned building, ghost town or any other forgotten space, do it. If it’s located in an area that is still populated, the contrast will be even better.

There are two sites worth checking out for photography of abandoned space. First is fuckyeahghosttowns, which has an extensive, categorized listing of abandoned spaces (including the Tamarack Lodge Hotel, in Greenfield Park, NY, pictured above). This is the best place to get a feel for the scope of what’s out there.

The second is James D. Griffioen’s website. Griffioen is a photographer with an interest in abandoned space. Particularly good are his feral houses series and his Detroit Public Schools series (which includes the above photo). Take the time to read the story about these public school buildings. It’s fascinating and a little shocking.

Since this is a topic I know I’ll return to, I’ll leave it at that for now. Consider this a foundation for future discussion.

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Triangulating the city

The New York Times has an amusing, albeit gimmicky, op-art spread titled “Navigating the Urban Jungle.” The author, Tristan Gooley, is an expert outdoorsman and in this piece he successfully applies bush skills to the urban terrain. Many of us probably use at least some of these tips already:

In this age of GPS-enabled phones it is increasingly easy to set off for some destination without knowing exactly where you’re going. You can just get to the nearest subway station and then whip out the iPhone. Newer models even boast built-in compasses, which will not only tell you where you are, but also which direction you’re facing (thereby eliminating 3 of Gooley’s 6 tips).

Then there is the growing world of augmented reality, where the reality before you is “augmented” by a computer (usually a smartphone). Literally, you hold up your iPhone to a building, mountain, statue, whatever, and the screen of your phone will point out local attractions and provide info on each. It gets better. Want to find the closest Starbucks or busstop? Just hold your phone up and walk in a circle – the screen will identify which direction AND how far away all the closest options are. Wikitude is probably the most developed example. You can imagine this technology being incorporated into an eyepiece that people permanently wear when they’re out and about.

I think this stuff is great. It enhances our ability to learn about our surroundings and increases our accuracy & efficiency. But there is something depressing about how this must inevitably “dumb down” society. Who needs to learn boyscout methods for navigating the urban jungle when your phone can tell you exactly where you are and where to go? Tethered computing required people to maintain a certain degree of navigational ability, but with the surge in mobile computing I’m guessing people’s sense of orientation and navigation will go the way of the slide-ruler.

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