Urban Studies

Urban Choreography

This semester I’m teaching a new course. I’ve hesitated to teach about dance too directly, worried about scaring off students. I’ve usually chosen subterfuge, putting in articles or footage about dance into courses on New York, the 1930s, or the arts and social engagement. In Urban Choreography, however, dance has a more central place. We’re looking at Trisha Brown’s Man Walking Down the Side of the Building and Roof Piece (featured above); discussing Annie-B Parson’s prose-poem The Choreography of Everyday Life; and we’ll be moving with Andrew Suseno in Union Square. What is it that dance—both formal and informal—reveals about urban life? 

Aaron Shkuda and I co-edited a special section in the Journal of Urban History on arts and urbanization in postwar U.S. cities. Articles by Joanna Dee Das, Susannah Engstrom, Matt Reynolds, Jeffrey Trask, Aaron, and me. (Introduction by me as well.) It’s available here!

Imagining NYC

In this book, Christoph Lindner traces the New York that appears in literature and the visual arts in the early 20th century. He divides the imaginations into two sections, one vertical (skyscrapers), one horizontal (sidewalks), and ties creative pictures to urban plans and forms. In this, he adds an attention to spatiality to that of visuality in modernism. The city is not only seen but walked. Read more…

The City Lost & Found

This exhibit on “Capturing New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, from 1960-80,” is on view at the Princeton Art Museum until early June. The curators have assembled an impressive array of photographs, artworks, film, and historical artifacts to reveal how images became an indelible part of urban life during this period. Read more…

The Carceral City

I walked through Crown Heights a few days ago and came across this odd mobile police unit. Students in my class knew exactly what it was: a M.U.S.T. – a mobile utility surveillance tower. It can be moved to a “place of interest,” a platform elevated from the base, flood lighting, infrared cameras – all monitored by one officer in the lifted hub, the driver’s seat of the van, or, I believe, remotely. If chaos ensues below, that person can call in extra troops with the push of a button from the encased hub, without having to exit to the street. The 21st century version of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, on a city corner near you. Read more…

Divided Cities

Carl Nightingale has written a masterly, globe-spanning history of how segregation has split cities. It is a grand riposte to the shrinking topics of academia and a shiny model of border-crossing transnational thinking. Over nearly 500 years, from Asia to Africa, Europe, and the Americas, Nightingale argues that three ideas worked to consolidate separation as the key to urban formations: governmental directives, intellectual exchange of ideas in areas such as health and eugenics, and the rise of the capitalist real estate industry. He lights down to more specific detail in 1600s Madras, colonial era Calcutta, 19th century Algiers, and then settles into a longer discussion of Chicago and Johannesburg as exemplar 20th century cities riven by race branded in place. Read more…

Kyle deCamp, Urban Renewal: A Multimedia Solo

The choreographer, performer, urbanist Kyle deCamp performed a piece on urban renewal on Tuesday, Sept. 23, at 7pm, at Barnard. I participated in a panel after the performance, along with Robert Beauregard, Reinhold Martin, and Mabel Wilson.

Kyle de Camp’s Urban Renewal brings together personal narrative, history and memory, with acuity to movement and place. This is a theater piece, but de Camp began her career as a dancer, and I think that perspective seeps through the entire project. Moving through projections on the floor and up the back wall, de Camp puts herself into outlines of her family home. Sketches of furniture move; rooms scroll up and away; she is moving in place. Read more…

Yes, And: Thinking about Cities

I had the pleasure of reading Aseem Inam’s new book recently. I am not an urban planner nor an urban designer nor an expert in urban policy. But looking at urban issues in the past ends up touching upon all of these fields. I approach current books in these fields, then, with some hesitancy as I come to it as an outsider of sorts, informed by a different training and bibliography. So one of the many reasons Designing Urban Transformation was a pleasure to read is because I forgot my trepidation. The book is for people who care about cities.

Read more…

Why do people move to the city?

It’s no surprise that 9/11 caused me to wonder why I live in New York City. I don’t have a job that is easily movable, but still: why stay in a place where your chance of being caught in a terrorist attack are exponentially greater than in Bowling Green, Ohio, or Eugene, Oregon? While the attacks caused personal consternation, they also prompted intellectual ones: why do people move to the city? Read more…

Seeing the City: West Side Story and New York

The movie West Side Story opens with an aerial panorama of New York City, starting from the southern tip of Manhattan with a view that encompasses the divide and coming together of the Hudson and East Rivers, moving over the concentric circling entrance ramps of the Triborough bridge to the dense skyscrapers of Midtown, patterned scape of Columbia University and Stuyvesant housing complex, and then following the diagonal cut of Broadway in the grid to swoop down to the street, to a worn concrete basketball court. The Jets begin snapping their fingers. Read more…

From Coney Island to Lincoln Center, From Strangeness to Fantasy

Cornell University Architecture Workshop (2010)

Architects know that the built environment can evoke fantasies. But what happens to those fantasies over time?

In the case of Coney Island, strangers at the turn of the 19th to the 20th centuries sought belonging in an escape to the beach, outside of the dense overbearing industrial landscape of Manhattan. There they found white castles, whirring rides, log chutes, and steeplechases. The fantastical world of such amusements heightened fears of a city – acrophobia, claustrophobia – in an attempt to ameliorate them. Its decay throughout the 20th century may be an indication of the changes in our fears – and the fantasies we need to confront them. What phobia could restore the need for Coney Island now? Read more…

Theaster Gates’ Dorchester Projects

Theaster Gates received the first Vera List Center Prize for Art and Social Justice in 2013; this essay, with others, on Gates’ works in Carin Kuoni, ed. Entry Points: The Vera List Center Field Guide on Art and Social Justice, No. 1 (Duke University Press, 2015)

Theaster Gates himself and the spaces he has created are inspiring. Interrogating absence – identifying what’s missing – and harboring what’s thrown out, fills the places and allows us to see “what could happen.” There is more deliberation in the filling than this explanation of the process suggests, however. He generally has filled spaces not with whatever is thrown out but with resources of value to African Americans, whether past issues of Ebony and Jet or the records of Dr. Wax. He wants to see what happens in a largely overlooked neighborhood that is populated by 99.2% African Americans, 72% who are under 18. This is crucial to the art and the impact, and yet how race and youth structure his practice is rarely articulated. Read more…

Lincoln Center, The Rockefellers, and New York City

Rockefeller Archives Center, Research Report (Fall 2005)

Rockefeller explained his interest in Lincoln Center both by the particularities of the historical moment and the legacy of the arts beyond those particularities. He reasoned that postwar society in the U.S. was in an era of prosperity, with more leisure time available to more people than at any other time in history. The arts served to fill leisure time fruitfully, and spiritually. For while economic needs were being met and scientific advances in medicine had increased longevity, people’s spirits were diminished, and the arts could satisfy yearnings for fulfillment on a deeper, more meaningful level. Rockefeller also noted that famous cities in history – Rome, Athens, Paris, Kyoto – were known for their arts, not their political, economic, or business successes. Rockefeller was also concerned with the international dimensions of the United States’ power and recognized that most countries did not think highly of America’s culture. In his view, Lincoln Center would feature the best of the performing arts from the U.S. and provide a place to present the best of the performing arts from countries around the world to U.S. audiences. For Rockefeller, then, the performing arts in the 1950s fused the specific needs of the historical moment with a long-lasting, worldwide legacy. Read more…

Dancing in the Streets: The Arts in Postwar U.S. Cities

This collection of essays on the arts in postwar U.S. cities offers a historical perspective on the contemporary embrace of the arts as a tool for urban place-making, neighborhood revitalization, economic boosting, and market branding. Urban historians can add a longer perspective to this trend to explain not only the roots of its current popularity but also more detailed measures of the arts’ impact. These essays look at arts institutions, artists as residents, and artworks themselves from the 1950s-70s to uncover the entangled intersection of arts and urbanization – before the arts became a touted salvation for stagnant economies and run-down neighborhoods. (Introduction [pdf])

Journal of Urban History, November 2015, edited with Aaron Shkuda. Photo: circa 1950s, The Vintage Project

Art + City

Cities are hubs of artistic activity. People are drawn to cities because of their artistic offerings and they are the place where the majority of artists live and work. But how and why did this intertwining of art and cities come about? And what effects has it had on cities and on the arts? This course investigates the art of urban life (such as the development of bohemia); genres of art that arose in and of the city (photography, the Broadway musical, hip hop); spaces of the city that become identified as an arts enclave (SoHo, “museum mile”); and the municipal policy and politics that both support and confound the arts in cities (public art). We read first-hand and historical accounts of artists in the city and analyze artworks for their portrayals of the ties between urban life and artistic vision.

Read the syllabus here.

Where Urbanization and the Arts Meet

The rise of Lincoln Center and the transformation of the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) reveal how tied stages are to streets. These articles examine how events inside these grand performing arts institutions — their performances, audiences, programming — related to the changing demographics and neighborhoods of New York; how ideas about urbanism and actions on city streets become transfigured in the arts; and how cosmopolitanism became inscribed in city life by these institutions. (Streets and Stages: Urban Renewal and the Arts After World War II [pdf]; The Other West Side Story [pdf]).

Photo: BAM, 1978 (NYPL)

The Arts in Place

Specialists of specific genres of art dominate scholarship on the arts — art historians examine visual art; musicologists analyze music – while social historians most often have investigated popular culture, the artistic realm of a broader populace. This volume brings together social history and the arts to offer methodological insights, particularly on visual and spatial aspects of the past. (“The Arts in Place: An Introduction” [pdf])

Photo by Susanne Faulkner Stevens: Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival, August 1975 (Lincoln Center Archives)