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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“Keep your Big Apple, we’ll have a tangerine”

[UPDATE: YouTube took down the video at the request of the label. You can still view it here]

Ymerodraeth State of Mind. Amazing. Newport is the 3rd largest city in Wales but only has 116k people. Along with, apparently, a brand new shopping center. I can’t decide if this is making more fun of Newport or NYC. It was conceived/produced by a Londoner…

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St. Pancras at night

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