WEEKEND READING: May 21-27, 2011

Photo credit: saracino
Heading into a much-needed long weekend. Memorial Day means extra reading time!

ITEM ONE: Anyone who's familiar with the unique joy of finding an easter egg in a video game will love this week's leader--check out Repudo, a new app that turns the city into one giant easter egg hunt.

ITEM TWO: Humans are just so darned clever.

ITEM THREE: The Space Liberation Manifesto is a call to arms for anyone who wants to see digital public space protected from the kind of every-flat-surface-gets-a-sign mentality that has turned public space in the physical city into one long commercial break. (via @bruces)

ITEM FOUR: Nicolai reviews Rem's Cronocaos show, which is on the Bowery until next Sunday. Choice quote: "In the realm of preservation, as in so much else, we seem to have become a world terrified of too much direct contact with reality."

ITEM FIVE: Michael Maltzan actually makes Los Angeles sound palatable in an essay excerpted from his new book No More Play over at Design Observer. (The Iwan Baan pics don't hurt.)

ITEM SIX: Caleb Smith, aka the man who walked every street in Manhattan, shares one of the most meaningful (and under the radar) historical sites for him on the island he knows so well.

Weekend Reading is very multi-media this week, I'm just realizing. So enjoy the reading...and watching, and listening! Back next week with more urban-y goodness.


Cartographic Diversion: An Illustration of Density

With 166 people per square mile, Honduras is in the middle of the pack as far as national population densities are concerned. But what would it look like if you packed every single Honduran into one city? As it turns out, it might look a lot like New York: both contain approximately 8.2 million people. Below are images of the administrative borders of the five largest cities in the US mapped onto the nations that most closely mirror their populations, all at the same scale. No big point to be made...just an interesting distraction for a Wednesday afternoon. Enjoy...

New York City: 8,175,133 -/- Honduras: 8,249,574

Los Angeles: 3,833,995 -/- Congo: 3,686,000
Philadelphia: 1,526,006 -/- Gabon: 1,475,000

Chicago: 2,695,598 -/- Oman: 2,845,000

Houston: 2,099,451 -/- Lesotho: 2,067,000


Why Las Vegas is (Probably) Not the Next Detroit

Photo credit: chepenicoli
A recent post at MarketWatch suggests that Las Vegas could be on its way to becoming the next Detroit, a metropolitan mire populated mostly by those who can't afford to leave. Indeed, the two cities share some striking parallels: both are industry towns, Detroit for auto manufacturing, and Vegas for gaming tourism; both cities experienced intense booms, Detroit at the start of the 20th century, and Vegas at the end of it; and both have been hit hard as their boom economies experienced extraordinary challenges, with Detroit facing the decline of domestic manufacturing and Vegas facing the decline of the domestic pocketbook.

But Las Vegas has a key advantage that Detroit does not share: it is dependent on an industry that is rooted in place. You can drive a car (or a factory) right out of Detroit, but Vegas succeeds because of its concentration of spectacle and excess. Vegas has long competed successfully with casinos in other cities. Atlantic City and Reno are one thing, but in the past couple of decades casinos have become popular plug-the-hole-in-the-budget schemes for cities around the US. (Even Detroit has put a lot of its downtown-revival eggs into the casino basket).

This competition has driven Vegas to become a center of innovation for the tourism and hospitality industries: it succeeds not because it is a center of glittering decadence, but because it is the center--the hub that other glitz-burgs model themselves after. The product here is a place-based experience, and that's a lot harder to outsource.

But MarketWatch also notes that Sin City has been well-trumped as the world's largest gaming center by Macau. While this fact is nothing to sneeze at, gambling tourism is not a zero-sum game considering the limits imposed by distance--that old, inconvenient truth that keeps Thomas Friedman up at night. Macau's new-found financial supremacy can be attributed more to the rise of Asian economies than a loss of interest in the Strip. Vegas remains the premier gambling center in North America, and it hardly seems likely that the good people of Omaha and Altoona will start hopping flights to the South China coast en masse any time soon.

A one-horse town will always be economically vulnerable, and the city should continue its efforts to diversify. Las Vegas' reliance on such an unstable industry played an undeniable role in magnifying the impact of the foreclosure crisis there (when your income shrinks, vacations are often the first thing to get cut from the budget). Still, don't bet against a comeback. "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas" turns out to be a surprisingly apt summation of how the city's economy functions. It may be tacky and garish, but that's part of the fun; Las Vegas is a city that cannot be separated from its Brand. The place is the product.


WEEKEND READING: May 14-20, 2011

It's a week full of revivals. Weekend Reading is back. In truth, it should never have left. Apologies. My Google Reader is overflowing, so most of these are a bit older; we'll catch up soon enough. Anyway, let's get to it—

ITEM ONE: Top billing goes to a guest post by Utazó over at Polis (the ace blog run by former Wherebloggers Peter & Katia) on gentrification and demographic shifts in the Józsefváros district of Budapest.

ITEM TWO: The fabulous Nina Simon writes about Case by Case, an experiment by the San Diego Museum of Natural History that invites museum-goers to affix post-its with questions, comments, etc. to cases containing un-labeled historical artifacts. It gets the artifacts out on the floor faster and helps staff develop exhibits that are more responsive to visitors' interests. Would love to see someone develop an app for doing this in a public space.

ITEM THREE (& 1/2): Richard Florida presents new info supporting his argument that happier cities are more economically prosperous, while Jay Walljasper suggests that neighborhoods with common shared spaces are happier neighborhoods. Happier neighborhoods = happier cities; more proof that Americans need to re-learn the importance of sharing.

ITEM FOUR: Where's friend Mimi Zeiger (@loudpaper) writes at Places about the creative use of posters, pamphlets, and guides in activating the urban environment.

ITEM FIVE: Fascinating article in re:Place about public space in West African cities. Strikes me as especially interesting that the main form of urban social space in Accra is the street—this is also often said of New York. (Union and Madison Squares are nice, but the real action is on the sidewalks).

ITEM SIX: Edwin Heathcote slays ridiculous city rankings (a la Monocle's whitebread circus of a livability list) in The Financial Times. Certainly among the best articles I've read on the subject.

ITEM SEVEN: Flavorwire rounds up a "Retrospective of Interventionists and [Museum] Crashers." Not even the Met is safe from DIY/participatory urbanism. Bwahaha! (via @fastcodesign)

ITEM EIGHT: I've been doing analysis of the data from the @IfUD's By the City / For the City  over at our project blog; add our feed to your RSS reader, there will be a lot of interesting stuff coming over the next couple of months.

Got suggestions for next week? Tweet them to @thewhereblog!


The City is Meant to be Experienced, Not Mourned

As a very new New Yorker last summer, I took to spending extended periods perusing the Census of Places that Matter, a crowdsourced database of significant locations around the five boroughs. When I stumbled upon a promising entry for Florent Morellet's legendarily-eccentric, eponymous diner (founded in the Meatpacking District before it was The Meatpacking District), excitement quickly turned to disappointment when a Google search turned up a New York mag article written just before Florent closed in 2008.

In the article, Morellet is unapologetically forward-thinking. "I came to New York for the reason everyone comes to New York," he explains: "because it is the city of changes. People forget this is what they love about New York. They get old, they get grumpy. They get … nostalgic.” (The article's author notes that 'nostalgic,' here, is uttered "with the same distaste [Morellet] uses when talking about Republicans.")

It is hard to be nostalgic in New York, a city that contains such an intense agglomeration of people, filled with their own desires, beliefs, ideas, customs, and all of the expectations that come with those things. Density creates a permanent sense of ephemerality, and the pace of churn in New York grants the city its most unique characteristics while simultaneously earning it a reputation as a place that renders each individual totally anonymous. To try to hold onto a moment here could drive a person mad.

Still, people try. One can't help but raise an eyebrow upon finishing the article about Florent's closing and reading the first reader comment: "This is why I left New York. Because the great New York that once was is no more." New Yorkers, you see, bemoan their losses as frequently and passionately as they proclaim their love for the city.

I was reminded of Morellet's line about nostalgia by developer Jerry Wolkoff's recent announcement of his plans to raze the building that houses 5Pointz, Long Island City's graffiti mecca, to make way for two condo towers. As 5Pointz is one of my favorite places in the city,  this was difficult news to hear. But Wolkoff has always intended to re-develop the 5Pointz building; the fact that such a place even exists in its current condition is a small miracle in post-Giuliani New York. And while I (and no doubt many others) would like to think I'd choose to preserve the more artistic and culturally-productive use of the site if I were in Wolkoff's shoes, we can hardly hold it against a developer that he is acting like a developer.

The 5Pointz team tweeted a response not long after the news broke that seemed to echo the sentiment expressed by erstwhile MePa scion Morellet: "This is nothing new to us. The show must go on!" And it will. New York has seen countless cultural icons rise and fall. The loss of a cherished community hub is nothing new here, and while it's easy to proclaim the death of the city as we watch individual sites crumble and fade, to do so inevitably robs us of some amount of time in which we could be enjoying the city as it is. While the 'right to the city' is well-discussed, we too often forget that we are not owed anything by the city. We are welcome to take part in it, but we can expect nothing more of it than what it happens to be. The city, as Beaudelaire wrote, "changes shape, alas, faster than a mortal's heart."

How can we ever expect a city to stay the same? It has been pointed out frequently enough that the preservation of the built environment often winds up pricing out the communities that were so strongly associated with them as to make them beloved in the first place. Does it not seem strange that, while we fight to preserve buildings, we experience the city much more intimately in individual stores, galleries, classrooms, temples, and other spaces that are virtually impossible to preserve? And that we then spend a great deal of collective energy mourning those places once they are gone?

Certainly, architectural preservation is not without significant importance. Nor is it possible to totally avoid missing a place that we loved once it is gone. Even the determinedly un-nostalgic Morellet must miss his restaurant and, more importantly, the community that it created. But it is an entirely different thing to miss a place than to mourn it. We can miss something swiftly, but to mourn takes time. The city is unsentimental; it does not mourn us when we leave. Demographics shift; people are priced out, and then back in; everything changes--and in New York, we're surrounded by everything, all the time.

If you focus on the city that was, you will miss the city that is. How we choose to interact with our cities is entirely up to us, but I believe that the city is meant to be experienced, not mourned. The scenery may change, but the show, as they say, must go on.