Another brick in the wall (of course, of course).

In a very small victory for SoHo preservationists this week, an agreement was finally hammered out, resolving a five-year old dispute at 599 Broadway. The building, located strategically at Broadway and Houston, was finally awarded the right to install advertising via billboards to be located a street level, though they will be forced to reinstall and maintain an intrusive piece of site-specific art that has been preventing them from realizing the highest, best use for their property for over three decades.

Concerns that the planned 120-foot tall advertisement for Axe Body Spray can’t be repurposed for the compromised space have caused concern that the less attractive space can even be rented. Owners of 599 Broadway are looking into the viability of applying for Liberty Bonds, or possibly receiving Section 8 funds from HUD until an advertiser can be secured.

The battle, which has bitterly divided the retail-rich enclave for some time, leaves many wondering about the long-term legacy of SoHo. Many feared that the full restoration of the art would rend the already weakening notion of SoHo as incubator for hundreds of marginally talented, but corporately and family-funded “creatives”.

‘Raz’ Dipson, a former art director at BBDO, now running the boutique agency Pedophilia out of his 7,200 square foot loft on Greene Street, explains “For most of the nineties, our position here was secure. But the influx of financial services sector money, Europeans and celebrities means that we are being slowly priced out of the neighborhood. I spend so much time fighting with the Goldmans that I barely have time to finish the one painting a year I need to produce to secure my subsidized lease.”

The historty of advertising will always be hard to trace. Ad men are famously secretive about their inspiration. One anecdote holds that the ‘got Milk?’ idea was born during a cocaine-fueled binge of watching lactation porn in a loft on Broome Street. “Yeah, well, it was Goodby, but those guys come out here all the time” reports Raz. “I know, I know the Tampax ringtone concept was thought up when a guy was talking to his daughter over dinner at Kittichai.”

Allowing a six-story billboard to be installed would have cemented SoHo as the upscale shopping destination for status conscious New Jerseyites and currency-advantaged Europeans. “Sure, there’s plenty of advertising on that corner, but it’s all east of Broadway, which many don’t consider truly part of SoHo” says Dipson. “With this onerous requirement to display art, what if all these people come here thinking SoHo is filled with art galleries?”

Now, the future of SoHo is in disarray. There is some discussion about forming an alliance group, but the fraying of the community wrought by the influx of new residents makes it tough: “Between Aspen in the winter and the Hamptons in the summer, no one can get their schedules coordinated” complains Raz.

Locals look to icons such as Ron Pompei to marshal the troops. Pompei, a trailblazer (“He’s been here since at least the 80’s” reports Raz) specializing in themed environments, would seem to be natural figurehead, but he has been reticent to date. “I dunno,” grumbles Raz, “apparently he was a sculptor at one time, and he’s said ‘The Wall’ adds ‘pychographic value’. And I heard he’s been really busy working on a Coke kiosk for McMurdo Station.”

Perhaps, like many changes over the years, this transition is likewise inevitable. A certain resilience, in the form of mining any remnant of legitimate cultural expression for the base purposes of shilling, say, hand cream, would seem to forestall this shift. But no one is secure, no one is protected. Reports Raz, “I was thinking of doing a poster that riffs on that — what was it, a song from Schindler’s List ‘First they came for the… the…’ — anyway, that song. A friend of my girlfriend knows the guys from Fall Out Boy, and we were going to have them in the poster and perhaps do a song, you know, to show that the challenges of one generation are repeated anew. Then one of them asked me how much I paid in rent. Whatever. John Zorn wouldn’t even return my phone calls.”

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Oh, hello. Sorry, I didn’t see you standing over there. Not many people come through any more. Excuse me? The large table over there, with the tarp? The dusty one? No, no, there’s not much under there. I can pull it off if you like. It’s just a bunch of outrage; it used to be pretty sharp and urgent. Now…

It’s surprising how quickly it wears down. You ding the corners a couple times and it begins to look like shit. Then time passes, the glue fails, and it collapses into a sad pile of misplaced hopes and futile intentions. I have some notes somewhere, I could explain it to you, but I think the process would just depress me more. This seems irrational, I know, but even talking seems to make the remnants a little more worn.

Yeah, monologues, that is what we are reduced to. You want outrage? How about the fact that another arts organization has been shunted off the WTC site. Guess where it got covered? In the Times arts section. I didn’t see the print edition; I hope it fell beneath a review of Blades of Glory.

It’s not a badly written piece, and it covers all the high points, in that dry, house style, where you wonder if they see it as highly restrained commentary that the insightful will read ‘correctly’, or if they are just obtuse. Around here, we go in for a bit more muckraking, so here’s a fresh take on the steps to date:

Back in the day, an architect (Daniel Libeskind) came up with a ‘master plan’ the elements of which were expected to guide the long term planning of the WTC site. Though his actual building designs were pretty thoroughly rejected (and some even contest that his plan should have been chosen in the first place), every mouthpiece from Larry Silverstein to George Pataki reiterated how crucial is was to maintain the integrity of said plan, even though it appeared that every design decision made was contradicting the images people pretty readily embraced as the ‘idea’. If pressed, one might describe this plan as a memorial bounded by a L-shaped gathering of towers and cultural venues. Oh, and tower that was 1,776 feet high, a ‘symbolic gesture.’

Well, we still have all that, if one can believes that funding for a $700 million theater can be found, and if a knick knack kiosk for the Memorial constitutes a cultural venue. We certainly got the spec office space, and the bonus of a big mall. How did it all do down? After much jockeying and hand-wringing, four venues were announced (oh, a couple years ago): The Drawing Center, the Signature Theater, the Joyce (dance), and something called the International Freedom and Patriotism Conclave (or words to that effect). Architects were selected, and design efforts commenced, though no one was given a budget, or told how things would be funded, or even when they could expect occupancy.

The new kids on the block, Snohetta, were up first (Frank Ghery, a tricky old sot when it comes to commissions like this, still hasn’t offered a sketch). Thanks to a poorly chosen image of an exhibit for the first renderings, complaints from the architect who is buying a whole block of Park Avenue on the back of his fees from a nearby project, and cursory research into the kinds of shows the Drawing Center has mounted in the past, things went very south very quickly. Loyalty pledges were passed around, and the Drawing Center turned up their noses, right quick. Not having a lot of old skool patronage to back them up, they were pretty shown the door with the kind of alacrity reserved for ugly post-drunk-goggle hookups where everyone is wondering why those two got together.

Next up was the Freedom Center, headed by one of the preeminent fund raisers for President Bush a couple years back. Funnily enough, a center devoted to ‘freedom’ refused to sign at the dotted line. And they didn’t even play the irony card that hard. Snohetta was given the door prize (quite literally — they get to design the door to a below grade ‘visitors center’).

Meanwhile, Ghery toiled in relative silence, cocooned by the fact that his site and venues were decidedly less threatening, even though the programmatic requirements (which included stacking something like five theaters servicing two distinct tenants from a compressed footprint that was itself perched upon a sizable portion of the subterranean support areas of the Freedom Tower) had everyone shaking their head since the RFP.

Last week, everyone fessed up to the impossibility of this scenario, and the Signature Theater was shunted off site to the Fiterman Hall complex — a building that has sat for nearly six years in unattractive and potentially dangerous netting, having been partially destroyed by the collapse of WTC7. It has been undeveloped since the CUNY — which owns the building — was self-insured, and having just spent over $100 million developing it as a state of the art facility intended to shore up their downtown presence (the building hadn’t even opened when the attacks occurred), was loath to eat a eight to nine figure clean up bill and then still have to start the renovation process all over again. So yeah, that’s where the Signature is going. Larry will be happy since it means he now has at least the thin hope that one sites facing his Jeff Koons festooned drivelet for the rebuilt 7WTC won’t be a construction site in, say, eight to ten years.

We also get the parenthetical note that the Drawing Center will be moving to the South Street Seaport (though not Pier 17, as some particularly incisive commentators have argued), though, like everything in the article, it was qualified with uncertainties about funding, timing, you know, actual agreements. Ghery, who likely never got to the stage where he mushes around pencil shavings and calls it design, was happy to roll with the change order. Construction on the newly denuded Joyce can’t even start until 2011, meaning there’s plenty of room for progress invoices until Debra Burlingame finds out about the work of, say, Bill T. Jones.

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Spies Like Us.

It’s not been a good two weeks for law enforcement. The worst of it came first, with the murder of two auxiliary police officers (a quick aside — I know there a myriad reasons for that qualification, but I rankle at its consistent appearance; they died doing police work under the guise of a uniform and a badge), followed in quick succession by the indictments in the Sean Bell case and, now, a rather damning report that the intelligence gathering done in advance of the Republican National Convention in 2004 may have reproduced, if not exceeded, some of the most compromising intrusions on private citizens right to assembly since the Sixties.

The Times reported on Sunday that officers in the Intelligence Division sought to infiltrate a broad range of groups who they believed to be actively organizing protests in advance of the RNC. Based on their review (the materials are still not public), the Times concludes the majority of the organizers were explicit in their intention to demonstrate peacefully and lawfully. This qualification would seem to be a direct violation of the Handschu guidelines, which were established after similar behavior in the Sixities led to a lawsuit preventing such espionage. The NYPD reports that all their efforts were reviewed and determined to not be violations.

These are sad and damning accusations: that those who have been afforded exceptional authority in service of protecting the lives of the innocent (and the rights of the guilty) have abused that exception by continuing to treat those they have determined to be innocent as criminals. Is there a greater betrayal to our notion of democracy? It stands in stark and ugly contradiction to the brave efforts of two young men who crept up a darkened street in pursuit of a murderer and lost their lives because they wished only to protect those very same innocent civilians.

People ask me what this blog is about, and I offer a tortured amalgam of William Whyte, Jimmy Breslin and Michael Sorkin — ostensibly about the unique dialectic of people and place that give New York its character. A character that seems more like a charade each passing year. But people still try, such as the ardent, democratic efforts of citizenry united in opposition to a political figure. It is, after all, the essence our identity. The Boston Tea Party wasn’t a private equity IPO or a reality TV audition.

One of the most crucial notions our Framers introduced was the right of a person to live their life free from oppressive oversight. New York is full of colorful anecdotes that persist and inspire, from Duchamp leading the charge on Washington Square to Wigstock. And there is just as long a tradition of labor and political protest (I’ve been by more than one loud and demonstrative union protest supporting the NYPD and FDNY).

Some groups, such as Billionaires for Bush, are rather sanguine, stating: “We suspect they were looking for stock tips.” And there is a degree of levity and realism contained therein: protest will be subject to attempts at control. Best to not trust those you do not know well in such planning sessions. But when moralizers want to pass judgment on that which they cannot rationalize, we are subject to phrases like “I know obscenity when I see it.” As so it if a fair equivalent to then say that this activity does not pass the smell test.

This is worth belaboring because of the simple principle of our essential rights. But, like the barker says, there’s more. A billion dollars more in this case (this is the estimated value of wrongful arrest cases lodged against the city after the RNC). The vast majority of the 1,800 people detained have been had their charges dropped. Many were held for two days in conditions that were potentially unlawful. And the NYPD wants to prohibit release of this information because it may unfavorably prejudice the cases.

I don’t quite have a good analogy for this, but in essence the city is saying “We spied on a lots of people we knew were innocent. Then we arrested many of them, held them illegally, had to drop charges (in some instances because officers were proved by videotaped evidence to be giving false statements), and now want to defeat the lawsuits by restricting access to this information.” Go ahead, wrap it all up under the rubric of ‘terror threats’ and ‘intelligence operations’.

But the NYPD was infiltrating church groups and sending out missives to distant police agencies because of concerts. I don’t think it’s incumbent upon us to come up with an argument why this is wrong — I think it’s time to ask is the NYPD to present their model of what allowable conduct should be for law-abiding citizens, because the emergent picture implied by events like this might antagonize more than a few aged hippies.

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‘Not So Bad’ is the New Black.

In a fit of journalistic coming of age, amNY broke real news this week. Well, it wasn’t that newsworthy — probably just a trumped up press released fired in the opening salvo of Community Board hearings intended to garner a variance, if the follow-on Curbed note is accurate.

The upshot is that the Rouse Company, purveyors of high quality themed destinations such as Faneuil Hall (Boston) and Harborplace (Baltimore) finally gave up the ghost and sold itself to General Growth Properties, a name that should inspire the confidence that only a mall developer founded in Iowa can. And these new corn-fed developers — gasp! — find the economics of Lids and The Bodies Exhibit to be unsustainable.

And their answer? Wait for a new clever turn of a phrase: a luxury housing tower! You can’t fault these mid-westerners for being slow on the uptake; they just got here and they already figured out the scam of overpaying for an asset, then immediately running to whatever governmental agencies that is most amenable to pressure, contributions or other soft forms of influence, pleading poverty and requesting the right to pillage the surrounding community’s quality of life for short-term profit.

The fun thing about this story is that though it’s not exactly the playbook the Rouse Company employed in building the South Street Seaport, it’s damn close. And look how well that went. The fun part will be watching the various lackeys from places like the ESDC rolling over like they are getting their bellies scratched while these farmers are actually pissing on their face.

But I’m not here to complain again about how shockingly ignorant local and regional planning is in New York; we just have to sit tight for a couple more years, and the shimmering evidence of that will be visible from most of Long Island. I’m here to complain more locally about what any regular reader of this page might find shocking: I don’t think this should be allowed because I actually like Pier 17.

When I say I like it, I don’t necessarily mean the exceeding poor execution of the retail destination concept. People are forever proving that malls don’t work in Manhattan. This is because everyone hears the statistic that the Shops at the WTC was the most successful retail space in the world. This was true, but the confluence that enabled this — astoundingly high foot traffic, and the completely unique of opportunity of placing what was essentially a suburban shopping model diretly in the path of regional commuters (their target market) — cannot be easily reproduced.

Rouse, which pioneered the vaguely historical, vaguely upscale, vaguely vague historic-y shopping/eating concept, managed to make it really work only once, even though they got a number of locations to provide them with sundry tax breaks and development dollars. In the end, lots of retailers and cities got hosed, and time eventually caught up with Rouse.

Looking around at the various ‘districts’ that work in New York, the only commonality they share is that, excepting Dumbo, there are several competing commercial interests. So going from one big confused shopping center developer to another is not going to produce any groundbreaking insight. Indeed, their one big idea is to tear down the one thing that sort of works.

Again, forget the mall part. The building part — a big, open shed structure with great views in every direction, lots of exterior space, and a reasonably compact and innocuous footprint. Easy to find, with the name right there on the side. The presence of ungainly, corporate-scaled food establishments that scream Bennigan’s and decidedly middle-market retail is a problem of programming, not form.

When you look at the various proposals floated for Pier 40, it makes you wonder, why wouldn’t that work just as well at Pier 17? Performance Arts complex, abutting some high end residential (in the perfect loft luxury scale), all of it a five minute commute from the target market. Haven’t these people heard of St. Ann’s Warehouse? Hell, you could make it a big nightclub. Then the besotted patrons would fall right off the peir and into the river and we wouldn’t have to worry about them driving home drunk.

The one redeeming quality of Rouse was they did entertainment architecture a hair better than everyone else. That’s not saying much, but when Exhibits A & B, are, say, ‘Miss Brooklyn’ or the new hotel Carlos Zapata is offering on the Bowery, the sturdy faux historicism of Pier 17 starts to look pretty damn appealing.

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People say I’m extravagant because I want to be surrounded by beauty. But tell me, who wants to be surrounded by garbage?*

The rich aren’t like you and me. They have better views, and they don’t defecate. Or so you would think, given their hyper-aversion to refuse. Who can blame them? With private sanitation trucks running down pedestrians every time they turn a corner, and bugaboo still a couple years away from producing a stroller than can go toe to toe with a Mack truck (but it’s coming, I promise), one has good reason to fear garbage — even if you discount the potential mafia connections.

The latest skirmish in the inevitable nexus of shitty, ready for their Wall Street Bonus close-up condos, development creeping to the edges and rapidly disappearing industrial lots for city services is occurring in WeSp (no, that isn’t a Swedish snowboard fashion company). Or, rather, the butt end of Spring Street, being feverishly hawked as upscale.

This time is it a proposal by the Dept of Sanitation, being pushed off their existing garage location up near the Meatpacking District, to build a garage just south of the UPS depot that runs from Houston to Spring long Washington Street.

I’m not going to bother with the list of sins. The Downtown Express did a good job of it, but even if they hadn’t, you can easily fill in the blanks: terrorist threats, WTC suffering (though none of the new residential buildings nearby existed on 9/11), on site fuel storage, rats, etc.

No one mentioned ruined views, though this is an obvious and important subtext. Why? Because residents of The Glass House, 515 Greenwich and the Dubbledam building have astoundingly bad views, mostly because the exhaust towers for the Holland Tunnel block the due west view. If you crane you neck in a whiplash inducing way, you might be able to gaze out over the UPS lot currently there, over Pier 40 and a multitude of parked cars, to look upon Hoboken. Should the garage plan happen, their limited view will likely be reduced to a glimmer of sun disappearing around 4pm.

Follow closely here folks: No view lasts forever. In fact, most views don’t outlast the duration of your residence in a particular locale. When that view is taken over by garbage trucks, well, I sort of feel your pain, but isn’t that part of the sexy danger of rezoning industrial lots as residential? That’s the beauty of gentrification: just because it’s expensive, doesn’t mean it’s a good deal.

This is a retread of the fight a few years back when the city issued a revised solid waste plan. New York has a massive solid waste problem (how massive? Well, check out Staten Island), regardless of what all these “New York is actually sooooo green” articles pitch. The city is in the verge of getting sensible — a qualification that will stick until a train tunnel for freight and waste is underway — plan, but such a plan requires hard, ugly, smelly decisions. If we don’t truck out our garbage, we barge it. So we need waste transfer stations — near water, tunnels and major roadways.

The mayor got his plan pushed through in 2005 by basically sticking a transfer station in his backyard, a act of civic virtue and realpolitik that was probably lessened by the fact that he has a couple jets to get him out of the neighborhood if the smell gets too bad.

The Department of Sanitation is doing its part to shift towards multi-storey garages (on 56th Street and in this plan), to reduce the footprint and, in principle, the visual clutter, so no one has to stare at a field of dirty trucks. Everyone seems to be a reasonable adult of about some very unpleasant, pragmatic choices.

Except for, of course, the NIMBY-come-latelys over in “Hudson Square” (which takes the award for a the neighborhood moniker that still won’t stick, even after ten solid years of Trinity marketing). But since the Borja Brouhaha has pretty much cemented that the WTC attacks were actually all about giving magnificent, old school New York assholes bulletproof license to pout and whine about tragedy they are entirely divorced from (I can’t wait for the stories coming years down the road of Brealey girls who were in preschool the day of using 9/11 on their college applications) to gain a minuscule advantage on a meaningless point, go crazy you HudSquos: if we build this garage, then the terrorists have won.

Links in the header don’t work so well.

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Is that a terrorist threat in your pocket, or are you just glad to be watching an ‘edgy’ cartoon?

This is a tale about a local boy making it big, perhaps too big for his liking. Meet Sam Ewen, who, right now, is probably having a Very Bad Day. Not a Jean Charles de Menezes sort of Bad Day, but I’m sure in his self-inflated head, he thinks it so. Sam is a “guerrilla marketer”, who runs a very mysterious firm called Interference, Inc. Interference is his second venture in the area of hiring desperate actors to debase themselves even more than a stand up showcase, and now has the added fun of the potential for PATRIOT Act charges. Can you say indemnification kids? I bet Sam’s lawyers can.

His previous venture was Eisnor Interactive, a smallish agency with a good rolodex but otherwise of no account. They broke the concept of guerrilla marketing big back in the tail end dot com boom, and were responsible for a whole range of corporately funded sidewalk stencils and other assorted “edgy” advertising. Then they blew up, got bought up and it all flamed out around the time that IBM bought a big bill for using highway grade line paint to dot the LES with Linux penguins. Good times [note, this here is not germane to our story in the least, but I’m hoping for some Google search terms, like “Sam Ewen Terrorist” will result from this. One upside to producing far too long posts is you come to own some really strange search terms. Did you know I’m pretty regularly in the top twenty for ‘look up her skirt‘?].

Interference is very mysterious because their web site has been down since — I’ll assume since right around the time the news broke that Boston was fearing it was suffering a test run for a terrorist attack. But it turns out it was a test run for fun! I bet these aren’t the sort of hijinks they were hoping for when mounting LED displays of what looks like a Space Invader character giving you the finger. Get it? Edgy! Sort of like quoting an army PsyOps field manual on your web site. No wonder they yanked it (well, okay this was the older, less flash-y version).

Why is this a local story? Well, we are very proud when someone who shows creative flair in our provincial, bland, suburban hometown (come on — what passes for edgy these days? Discussion of baby strollers and how anal sex is all the rage? Whoa!) moves up to the big time. Or the big house.

It’s interesting: on the same day the Brits break up a ring suspected of plotting to behead a British solider on tape, the best we can come up with is a “freelance video artist” who is probably being told by massively outclassed Legal Aid attorney that even though his little stunt was conceived, approved of and enthusiastically underwritten by one of the largest media conglomerates around, he better start getting ready to bend really far over. And to hire a lawyer the next time he signs a work for hire agreement from guerrilla marketers.

We will be reminded very often (likely on the CNN website) that he is independent since a very expensive damage control specialist is rolling out a full-bore campaign (that apparently includes scripting news reports for CNN; take a look at the coverage from Fox and the Times if you don’t think someone isn’t feeding the news desk talking points) designed to create a very consistent framework that will further the legal defense being prepped (which will spend a lot of time talking about the nature of their agency agreement), but also shaping the language so that by the time this is all over, my Google string won’t be “TimeWarner terrorist plot foiled” but “sorry ass video artist in Leavenworth”. And as I’m posting this I note that the updated story at the Times mentions our video artist’s site, but strikes references to Interference, which were up just a few hours ago.

This is where the story becomes local. When a SVA student attempts a pretty much standard-fare, poorly considered art project, he gets arrested in hours. You think the FBI is at Richard Parson’s pad right now? Whereas the MTA can probably pull some pretty impressive number about the costs of cleaning trains justifying threatening taggers with jail time, most street art has a nominal cost impact on city life.

Even so, we have often see illogical overreaction to things like the Idiotarod (this weekend) and we have local laws being rewritten because a cop really hates cyclists. None of these people own a news network, so the media discussion treads pretty regularly parrots the talking points of the police and the old man next door demo: “vandalism” and immaturity and whatnot.

The instances where actual measures of damage does occur tends to be better funded and more institutional, like half the Boston police force running around town looking for bombs, the Linux penguins (which weren’t dangerous, just everywhere and expensive to remove),but we never see the threat of jail time, particular those for whom these acts were performed.

Branding and advertising needs to be pervasive to be memorable, since we all instinctively respond to ads and turn away. A singular work of art, or multiples thereof (I love you, anyone? Octopi?) are memorable because we do not suspect a message to buy undergirds it. But when Sony wants to pimp PSP’s we get six thousands stencils of freakish fan boys. (I suspect the 15% creative services fee probably has something do with the carpet bomb approach).

So there will be a gradual tightening again of free speech, when most of what will be used to justify it isn’t actually a threat of any kind, and often the complete obverse. Yet something that gets as out of control as thins, and Richard Parsons won’t even have to stop firing Time employees long enough to apologize. You think at least they will cancel Adult Swim? No chance. Because the ratings are going up this week. Someone is already calculating the potential upside so they have number they can offer the city of Boston, one that will be less than projected revenue. The sad sack, who CNN will keep mentioning over and over (they still haven’t mentioned that Turner is a subsidiary of TW), won’t be named here. Rather, let’s us sing praises to Sam Ewen, local boy, who might very soon be moving into truly edgy advertising opportunities, like Rikers.

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The moment of vertigo.

Why do people live in New York? There is no relationship between them. Except for an inner electricity which results from the simple fact of their being crowded together. A magical sensation of contiguity and attraction for an artificial centrality. This is what makes it a self-attracting universe, which there is no reason to leave. There is no human reason to be here, except for the sheer ecstasy of being crowded together. Jean Baudrillard, America

One of the things that deforms my head when trying to craft a point of view is the narrowing of one’s experiences of public space. This stems in large part from real estate prices, and there is an ancillary effect of disinterest and exhaustion — a fear that there isn’t anything else out there.

This narrowing is the gradual removal of human interaction that doesn’t fall into three broad categories: housing, shopping, and entertainment — and here I mean solely restaurants and bars. It seems impossible to argue that the we can demand of our physical environment a moment, if not a consistent state of being, where a transaction isn’t demanded or expected. Instead, small and large numbers (the $100 martini! the $1,000 omelet!, the $100 million apartment!) filter and shape every step.

For some time I’ve attempted to get my hands around an argument about SoHo. The loose themes that float in my head have to do with the hypocrisy endemic to most of the myths that sputter along. Why I bother at all is because it stands as the psychological epicenter of the both the sense of loss and the former ideal.

Being glib, one can simply and expediently dismiss the outdoor premium mall it is has become. But the money it commands and generates is ostensibly the enlightened sort of capital that could finance the public spaces and events which sustain the myth. But what we have instead is the slow, steady repopulation of SoHo by (primarily) Joseph Pell Lombardi and Goldman Properties, purveyors of a the ‘SoHo experience’ par excellence. In a relatively small area, there are easily two dozen infill projects that transparently ape the historical context.

Many are pitched with the argument that they are reproductions of what was previously there, an unerasure that happens on occasion in some historic districts by a sect of, I guess, misguided fans of preservation. It’s a pretty misty disagreement that you see circling in pretty narrow confines. After all, few see the point in dissecting the formal differences between the Greene Street Lofts and the SoHo Grand.

Every time I walk down Broadway or Mercer, I am reminded, starkly and powerfully, why the fuzziness of this conundrum is simply laziness on my part. Aldo Rossi’s only major work in America, the Scholastic Building, one of the few buildings here for which you can find provenance at a glance, is burly and unapologetic, clever and contextual. On most firm footing, it dares you to question the simple arrogance it exudes of an idea done well, very well. There is an air of complexity and deftness that, on further research, reveals an authentic tale of demonstrating just that. I keep going back, doubting my own satisfaction as some residue of Midwestern idealism wrought by the belief that reading The Architecture of the City was some sort of coronation of intellectual urbanity. But I still like it. Either it is that good, or I’m that big a fool.

Down the street, creeping skyward now over the past two years, is 40 Mercer, Jean Nouvel’s first big US project. It too comes with a slightly sordid past, angry neighbors because of an excessive envelope, trumped by a near spotless legend of designer and a wily developer. The seeming ease of the rigor and marvel of good choice after good choice shares so little with the fusty historicism as you journey towards the center of SoHo. Instead, like its perimeter neighbor, there is an admirable dose of vigor and care, the effort of architects who cut their teeth in cities where almost every project had the potential to rend the fabric of history and urbanity going back centuries.

I’ve been excited — which makes me a little queasy, rooting for upscale condo development? please — to see this project progress. It looks like it is done right. But it’s just an apartment building. A nice one. A really nice one. But hell, Lombardi does really nice ones too, doesn’t he? I wanted to make an argument about vacillating between those two points.

And then, completely unrelated: George Trow died. I didn’t know him, or of him. This arbitrary event mattered only because the eulogies educated me about the work he was best known for: “Within the Context of No-Context”, an artful diatribe against television and contemporary culture — the kind, you know, that no one writes anymore.

I wondered, like any glib undergraduate, if there were any clever pull quotes I could use, so I dug up a copy last weekend. In the course of doing so, I was struck by the fact that it is roughly contemporaneous with two other, um, significant (I hate those type of universal qualifiers — they seemed important to me) works: Jean Baudillard’s America, and Marshall Berman’s All That is Solid Melts into Air. The former was the playbook for every aspirant architecture student or junior prof locked into some nowhere school in the late eighties, and Berman’s was the same for the rest of the liberal arts population.

Both Trow and Baudrillard write in a similar way — snippets strung together by explicit and implied connections, a staccato style that is easily read, but less easily digested. When I finished the Trow, I wasn’t convinced it had much relevance in any direct way, abetted by the fact that I didn’t even have an argument yet. But there is this:

New York is an inhuman machine put together to serve the most ambitious interests of a certain part of American secular society.

The geographer David Harvey argues that there is nothing ‘unnatural’ about New York City and doubts that tribal peoples can be said to be closer to nature than the West.

In the course of digging out my copy of America, I can across a collection put out by the Queens Museum, probably in conjunction with a show or at least a symposium, a series of projects in response to the renovation of the Panorama of New York (with names like Andrea Kahn, Brian McGrath and Mark Robbins on the back cover — have those names even be published outside of the pages of Perspecta or Log since?). I put it aside, since the last part of Trow is a long disquisition about working at the World’s Fair. It is interesting to see multiple generations of despair noted: the recollections of the sixties, presented in the eighties, and then once again revisited in the nineties.

In its brilliant verisimilitude there is a haunting absence of the complexities and turmoil that animate urban life and comprise the character of New York — or any other city.

But this large claim about the vibrancy of living int he city preceded Google Earth, and the flatness of how we envision design now. The projects featured look quaint, technologically and theoretically. Could we all have been so naive?

Earlier this week [real estate blog] reported on [new project] by [middling architect]. And [lifestyle blog] reported on [new restaurant that is already too crowded with IB Types].

We can fill in the details. I think about Tafuri, Rossi, the welter of Marxist design theory overlaid with a sumptuous culture of design, and the repugnance with which some viewed this progress toward modernity, even from those one might expect as fellow travelers — leading me to ask: if Pasolini moved to SoHo, would it be Nouvel or Lombardi? As usual, I don’t have an answer. I will walk through once again with lustful envy and energetic anger. But that isn’t some form of acceptable praxis or dialectic. It is futility.

Anti-architecture, the true sort […] the wild inhuman type that is beyond the measure of man was made here — made itself here — in New York, without consideration of setting, well-being, or ideal ecology. It opted for hard technologies, exaggerated all dimensions, gambled on heaven and hell — Eco-architecture, eco-society — this is the gentle hell of the Roman Empire in its decline.

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There is a growing pile of correspondence from Glenn Lowry on my desk. Well, not just him, but also various important persons in the membership department at MoMA. I’m very important to them these past few weeks, unlike the rest of the year.

It’s that time again. Well, actually it passed last week, but doing year-end posts after the year ends is the new heroin, or something like that. I meant to do a more earnest post about what it means to identify oneself as a member of a community (even if it is one of nine million people), and what those responsibilities are, especially when tax breaks are to be had. Figuring my demo is not heavily skewed toward those who itemize (we are talking about architects after all), and listing to whom I give money seemed like the antithesis of charity — oh, and I’m lazy — the post never made it, and I’m sure y’all gave as generously as your deductions merited.

So anyway, back to that pesky MoMA renewal. A great deal if you go to MoMA four times (less if you bring a guest), right? No standing in line, a clear sense of local superiority when you get in the members coat check line (which seems to never work as well as the non-members line). All so you can try to look at artwork you’ve been looking at for the past ten years, if you an get past the seven hundred thousand people who seem to enter every day. Oh, don’t forget that great trinket store discount — overpriced holiday cards at 10% off!

I think you get my point. Even at a $20 non-member entry fee, it’s rough sledding to argue for MoMA membership. It’s like the proverbial gym membership — all intent, no execution. The question for me today isn’t about wasting one’s money. I just need to look at my rent bill to get a more gratuitous sense of frission at futile outlay. It’s the snookering of thousands of New Yorkers by the massive brand machine that is MoMA.

Really, is there a more trite symbolism of New York residency? It’s the training wheels of culture consumption, yet so many of us cling to it, fearful we’ll be caught out, like not subscribing to the New Yorker. It’s Culture Legitimation Insurance — really, a good deal for that number. For $75, you can insulate yourself from a sense that you are a philistine, that you are a small but sturdy leg of the table that is the preeminent arts institution in America. You and the other 600,000 or so members who make up the same amount of revenue as is expected from an incoming board member.

When is the last time you went? Even cracked the wafer seal of the monthly guide, that seemingly rich book of culture that arrives each month, a little dig intended to keep you small? “Look” it says “over 40 pages of highbrow activities that you could be yours, if you weren’t such a lazy low culture wastrel! Only $6.25, amortized!” Except ten pages are given over for Park Slope mommies and Bugaboo stroller lunch programs, along with the listings of 50 films that you could only reasonably attend if you live or work within six blocks due to their draconian ticket policies. Oh, and the show that has been up since 2004 that is as marginally as interesting any twenty feet of West Chelsea real estate.

My opening salvo in the war against middlebrow cultural namechecking was to instead patronize their neighbors. Then I looked further a field: first stop was the Whitney, where it took me all of five minutes to remind myself that it was more of the same (though I enjoy going to the Whitney more), a point driven home years ago when I worked for an ad conglomerate and scored one of those superpowered corporate member passes. Actually, I took a fistful, since no one wanted them, and escorted a half dozen friends to the Biennial, with a pass for each. Upon presenting one, I was asked “How many tickets do you want?” So, yeah, fuck me, pay for a membership when some ‘hip’ art director from McCann take waltz in with everyone in his Hoboken apartment building for free? I think not.

I won’t bother with the progressively duller story of trying to think of worthy cultural institutions I could come up with off the top of my head and how it petered out once I found out you couldn’t join the El Museo del Barrio online. But in principle, I’m still at it. But the important first step, like any addiction, is admitting you have a problem. Thus, I have shred all my MoMA related correspondence. I tread confidently, if a little unsurely into a future… post-modern. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

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Inevitable Year-end Roundup.

This is when everyone is supposed to do year end round ups and/or make predictions. Certainly on the one on everyone’s lips today will be competing reports from major brokerages finally admitting that real estate in the city is cooling (nooo!), but the landing is soft (big surprise) and next year will be better (yay!). Nothing shocking there.

Looking at some of the efforts of others, I find myself glad that I don’t attempt to make a better study of the outer boroughs: it looks like Kondylis on meth out there.

Closer to home, the news isn’t much better. Not bothering with the pedantic research require to nail down a date or two, here are some general observations about the progress of our urban fabric over the past year.

Starchitects: Over. After a passel of big names and big disappointments, the parade of easy developer dollars for swanky residential seems to have been turned off for the institutionalized big names of our architectural youth. Not all the buildings are bad, and hell hole that is the ‘revitalized’ High Line may yet produce more embarrassment for anyone who self-identifies as an architect, but it looks like the ride is over. We can thank or blame Tschumi for this.

Charity? We don’t need no stinking charity. Aside from our mayor buying a townhouse for a bajillion dollars, no significant culture projects were announced, funded, initiated, or planned for most of the year. The Whitney/High Line announcement doesn’t count because a: it is no more impressive conceptually than the Guggenheim/Casino fiasco in Las Vegas, and b: the Whitney has made announcing expansion plans a conceptual art form that has yet to be acknowledged.

The city that never sleeps: pretty tired. A quick list of unresolved public and private development or design disputes that seem to have gone nowhere, except back, over the past year: PS 64 (CHARAS/El Bohio), The WTC site/memorial/demolition/remains recovery, Hudson Yards, Governors Island, Pier 40, congestion pricing, East River-fish market-seaport redevelopment, Moynihan Station, or property tax reform (though no one is really looking at that). The city gets no credit for the 421a exclusion expansion (if I’m saying that right), squoze in just under the wire, after noticing that people are selling million dollar apartments across the street from auto repair shops and a plantain wholesaler.

Brooklyn: not so lucky. Perhaps planning gridlock has its perverse benefits. While we were all staring at the Switch Condo, trying to figure out what could be taking so long, the city rezoned all of Brooklyn. Scarano gets the northern half, though apparently the cornice line tops off at just below his Star Trek office, and Ghery gets the southern half. Since he doesn’t have an office here, there are no limits to how garish he can be, a challenge he seems to unfortunately relish (Oy Vey! indeed, Marty). In response, Park Slope parents everywhere force their children to form middle-school punk bands that write 3-chord paeans to Jane Jacobs.

Pataki: the most dangerous man in America. Apparently Pataki is still on bin Laden’s speed dial (or buddy list, to update a tired cliche). It was announced that he will get around that clock protection (at a price of $20K a week) since he is apparently still in grave danger from… terrorists. That’s right, the man who has done more than anyone (save Dubya) to demonstrate the efficacy of singular acts of terrorism is considered a target. No, he’s their hero. I might speculate that the order was intended to protect him from Arad, but he’s apparently been rendered to the PANYNJ version of Gitmo. You can take this whole paragraph as a synecdoche for WTC rebuilding: unmitigated disaster, no observable change in status.

This listicle making is tiring, and uninspired — just like most of the past year in development and design in Manhattan. I could have been more diligent in the research, but it shouldn’t take hours of pondering, or wandering, to come up with a single example of an inspired change to our physical landscape. It seems like lots of streets got paved, but all that does for us is increase the amount of danger we face from speeding vehicles. Hell, it was the first full year in a century that the air wasn’t befouled by Philip Johnson, and even that didn’t prevent the erection of yet another of his signature ham-fisted rehashes of design styles two decades out of date that had been his hallmark since the thirties. Flush with billions of dollars in Wall Street bonuses, you might hold out hope for morsels of that finding its way back to the city that made such an industry possible. But don’t hold your breath, unless you offer bottle service.

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Spring is sprung.

So what I wanna know is: did anyone tag 11 Spring last night? That would cause all manner of hue and cry, I expect. And be funny. That’s because there are very complex rules that I can never get my head around regarding that worst of misnomers: ‘street art’. Something about the primacy of marking previously unmarked spaces, and then defending them from further defacement as vociferously as a golf community owner’s association (oh, an aside — did anyone notice that whomever is defacing the Swoon pieces have hit the site on Rivington Street that she recently redid?). If I understand this right, it is sort of like pissing on your neighbor’s door and then getting mad if someone tries to piss there after you. We have a lot to learn from dogs, it seems.

11 Spring is — well, used to be — one of ‘those buildings’. Dotting the Manhattan landscape in fewer numbers every passing year (well, month, it seems now), everyone has a personal favorite, be it 421 6th Street, the Windermere, or the nearby 190 Bowery. They sit, hulking and mysterious, targets of our naïve wish of ‘authentic’ redevelopment, or just ghosts resonant with misheard or half understood stories of glories past, a life we thought would be even marginally accessible when we got here, but in point of fact was as rare and inaccessible as these relics.

A year or two ago, it was on the verge of crossing over, purchased by the scion of a publishing magnate. Not much happened in the way of renovation as we all looked on in disgust and envy as some rich asshole was about to make an 30,000 sq ft private house in the heart of NoLIta.

The building then took a far more pedestrian turn, being sold off to a developer who lowered the sights, planning a couple apartments, stainless steel yadda yadda eruo whatever. All the details will be published on Triple Mint, for those of you who can’t get enough of ‘high end residential’ development.

But in a bid to seem arty, or neighborhood friendly, or, most likely, cagey about future maintenance bills, the developers were apparently swayed by Marc and Sara Schiller of the Wooster Collective, a group dedicated to the chronicling and cooptation of street art worldwide, to allow one last gasp, handing over the building for what looks to be a lovely caged bird of, um, free expression.

For the next three days, you are free to live out your Julius Knipl fantasy, tromping around three stories of proof that New York hasn’t provided much in the way of innovative street art in a long goddamn time. Of course, our regular jailing strategy might have something to do with it, along with a lack of publicly funded art schools.

After this brief window it will be papered over, and the hidden imagery will be used to add to the marketing chic, while hopefully dissuading future generations from returning to what was the preeminent site for street artists in the New York for the past generation.

See, that’s smart. The building will be tagged, inside and out, even though for all the world it will look like nothing more than a Joseph Pell Lombardi hedge fund job. I assume the developers were savvy enough to not attempt to extract promises from anyone, but surely there are tacit understandings that it’s hands-off from here out, and the Wooster Collective will do their best to decry those do disrespect the memory of this show by, ironically, keeping the spirit of the building alive.

It makes me think of Gordon Matta-Clark, a man who never passed on a chance to remind institutional wankers that you shouldn’t challenge an artist known for being rebellious. I can’t find cite on line (so this is all going from memory of an Sorkin article somewhere), but back in the seventies, Peter Eisenman, the ur-Williamsburg trustafarian bad boy, flush with Nazi cash and legitimacy from thankfully dead PJ, started an alternative something or other art space, the IAUS. He invited Matta-Clark to participate in a show. Matta-Clark, best known for a project that involve splitting a house in half with a chainsaw, showed up and promptly shot out the windows with a shotgun. That was a apparently a bit too bad boy, and Matta-Clark was banished and the windows re-glazed before the opening.

Some of the artists I am sure rankled at the implied prohibition that starts Monday and extends indefinitely, or at least to the notion that a movement that is known best when its work is executed without oversight or extant restriction was working within at least some parameters (at least one chronicled it). Others, such as marketing-friendly Shepard Fairey, didn’t need any urging, overt or otherwise. And that is what usually bothers me when bandying about the whole art meme.

Granted, ‘fine artists’ are another big bunch of wankers who play this game with far more sophistication (since the sums involved are much larger). But so much of what one sees in this alterna-friendly, anti-establishment work just seems to be a training grounds for Mountain Dew ads. There are notable exceptions, like Bansky (and ESPO, a distinction I make that I acknowledge is completely arbitrary. I just like his stuff), but the prevailing attitude and aesthetic just reeks of what every illustration student in art school was like — they could draw really well (and, honestly, better than us), but could never be bothered to think.

So there is plenty of bullshit to be called on this project, but since the narrative that surrounds it is so devoid of critical inquiry, I’m sure there are plenty of petulant street art fans who will hear none of this. And it shouldn’t stop you from going. Given how bland and polished the rest of this area is, you will no doubt see some really incredible stuff. But don’t forget what a snow job a big part of this is.

And since you will be right across the street, stop in and see something perhaps even more radical, though far more subtle. Jen Bekman (disclosure: who is a friend, though probably not happy with the association after this post) is hosting the latest edition of the Hot Shots !, which is the most democratic and subversive emerging artist opportunity I know of downtown: rather than depend on mostly inaccessible school programs, insiders, friends, or people who expect favors, she finds art in a manner that must be truly frightening to Art Basel hangers-on — she invites strangers to submit. The results are shockingly contemporaneous in quality that what you would find across town. And she’s not going to hide it when it comes down Sunday.

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