Sunday, December 23, 2007

holiday cheer

Phil Kline's annual Unsilent Night is quite amazing, and it is an annual holiday tradition in New York City and other worldwide locations. I first experienced it in 2000 or 2001, during SantaCon. Enjoy the video; it is about 9 minutes long and worth watching, regardless of whether or not you've experienced an Unsilent Night firsthand.

As you may or may not know, I have a thing for birds. Seeing a hawk hanging out in Brooklyn would be a real holiday treat, and Brooklyn Hilary documented the momentous occasion, which happened today in Park Slope.

I'll be celebrating the holidays in AZ and CA. One of my new year's resolutions is to post more in 2008. Thanks for reading Urban Landscaped in 2007.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

am New York: 'Endangered New York: 10 (more) to save'

Yesterday, am New York ran a two-page article titled 'Endangered New York: 10 (more) to save'. The sites mentioned were interesting (not quite what I expected), and professionally, one of the sites is one that my employer will have played a large part in demolishing. (I understand and am sympathetic to my employer's organizational decision, but it was good to hear the counterpoint, as little organizational context as it included.) There are several links and image slideshows related to the article; here is the link.

Of course, the images of Admiral's Row in the Brooklyn Navy Yard are immediately viewed as beautiful and worthy of saving (aesthetically and historically), but three other mentioned locations resulted in a more personal introspection --

Modernist architecture

In the article, Peg Breen, president of the The New York Landmarks Conservancy, is quoted as saying "I think modern buildings aren't as easy to love sometimes...some...require a more intellectual understanding." Breen's statement hits the nail on the head.

Cited as examples in the article are The New York Public Library's Donnell Library Center, the Morris B. Sanders House in Turtle Bay, and the George Washington Bridge Bus Station. I find it difficult to aesthetically appreciate Donnell and the Bus Station, but intellectually I appreciate both structures. Is modernist architecture the first movement of architecture that this time period's population views as disposable? Is modernist architecture harder to take care of, therefore it looks more worn? Or is it simply underappreciated, and why? Many people immediately react positively to Art Deco buildings (which I don't personally like). Why is that? Is it the age, or do specific architectural elements identify with individuals interacting with the buildings?

St. Vincent's Hospital

I used to live near St. Vincent's Hospital, and I will never forget watching the Twin Towers burn from my vantage point across the street. I have been operated on at St. Vincent's, and I still routinely travel there for various tests. (Nothing serious; I love up-to-the-minute healthcare!) Nonetheless, St. Vincent's filed for bankruptcy a couple of years ago, so there are now financial/economic and architectural concerns. At a lunch I attended last month with Greenwich Village activisits/preservationists/concerned citizens, St. Vincent's was mentioned several times as being the biggest preservation issue that might affect living conditions in Greenwich Village.

The humble diner

Yes, the New York City diner is disappearing, and it's a shame. (New York magazine wrote about this in 2004, but it bears repeating.) One of the things I noticed when I moved to New York City in early 1996 was the prevalence of NYC diners. It made me happy. After I read this article yesterday, I went to lunch at a diner on Madison and 33rd and ordered sausage and eggs (over easy) with home fries and rye toast. Support your local diner!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

holiday book exchange (and I connect with Googie)

It's the holiday season, and for the last several years, that has included an annual holiday book exchange at my place of employment. To be truthful, I "got out of" the book exchange the first two years I was at the Library, but this year, there was no excuse.

After literally feeling several wrapped books and thinking about my choice for about 60 seconds longer than appropriate (I lingered at that table), I committed to a package from the pile of offerings. I lucked out with a fantastic treasure, Googie Redux: Ultramodern Roadside Architecture by Alan Hess!

Ah, Googie architecture! I've heard the term before but forgot it. Now, after spending a bit of time scanning Hess' book and searching online, "Googie architecture" (aka "doo wop" architecture) is part of my vocabulary.

Googie Redux, originally published in 1985 and re-published in an expanded version in 2004, focuses on the western United States (California, Nevada), but Wildwood, New Jersey is also a well-known Googie town. In the 1970s, my grandparents took my brother and I out to Wildwood every summer. We stayed at The Mariner, which I believe recently closed. Scanning Hess' book and seeing the icy sidewalks outside my window this evening, I'm drawn to the idea of a doo wop long weekend in Wildwood. It'll be interesting to find out about the architectural philosophy behind these expressionist, futurist buildings from the 1940s and 50s.

Since I worked as a waitress at various Denny's locations during college, I've also spent hours in a uniform and apron, behind the counter in Googie buildings. (It wasn't pretty, but it was life.) This last summer, I also photographed various Googie sites in Chicago ghettos.

[Photo by Brian Indrelunas and found on Flickr.]

I lived within a five-minute motorcycle ride from this Googie building for almost 10 years. It wasn't an Arizona State University Information Center back then; it was still a Valley National Bank branch.

More information about the former Valley National Bank building at Apache and Rural:

-- from The Tempe Historical Society's website
-- went inside the building.
-- Even better, documents the demolition of the building.

I'm going to make sure I drive by the intersection next week, in remembrance of the building...and also to see what monstrosity is being built there in its place.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

'American Ruins' x 3

I was looking through the latest issue of photo-eye, and I came across an ad for Merrell Publishers. Featured was a photography book by Arthur Drooker titled American Ruins.

As you may remember, photographer Camilo Jose Vergara is one of my favorite photogs, and I recently asked him to autograph my copy of his book American Ruins (first published in 1999).

I also work with Ars Subterranea, and we've screened the work-in-progress film of a couple of our members, Bryan Papciak and Jeff Sias. The film is titled American Ruins, and its website can be found at

One of my friends and collaborators pointed out to me today the first line of the "Book Description" of Drooker's book on "American Ruins" is the first photography book to document historic ruins throughout the United States." ?!?!?!

It seems like a few people didn't do their research; photographers have been shooting historic ruins in America for many years now. Clarence John Laughlin and his book Haunter of Ruins come immediately to mind, just because now I'm thinking about my favorite photographers. Laughlin is most commonly referred to as a surrealist, but Haunter of Ruins features abandoned and deserted New Orleans buildings, which are pretty darn American. He was most active in the 1940s-60s. I'm sure somebody precedes him as well....

"American Ruins", the name and phrase, is genius and catchy. I understand this. It is not an excuse for it to be the only catchphrase that captures the movement of photographing significant abandoned American buildings.

Mr. Vergara's and Mr. Drooker's works are quite different. Simplistically stated, Vergara's is content driven. His photography is similar to Richard Avedon's (another one of my favorite photogs), in that it is direct and relies on its subject to provide the visual thrills. Drooker's work is romantic, mostly engineered by its use of infrared photography but also by the photos' compositions. I strongly prefer Vergara's style.

I also find it offputting that the main image used on several of American Ruins' (the film) webpages is so similar to Drooker's book cover.

Boo to Merrell, and yes, boo to Drooker as well.

A seldom-viewed Clarence John Laughlin image, interesting particularly in its subject location -
The Head in the Wall [building being demolished, near 2nd and K Streets, N.W., Washington, D.C.]
[Poems of Desolation]

While I was studying photography as a post-grad student in the early 90's, I traveled to New Orleans a couple of times and visited a photo gallery that had a few Laughlin prints and sold his books. This alone made my visits to New Orleans worthwhile; that's how strongly Laughlin's work affected me.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Not in my neighborhood?

I do like to explore abandoned buildings, and my recent trip to Detroit was my first opportunity to explore an abandoned house. Located in the Highland Park neighborhood, the house looked like a single- or two-family home from the front, but once we got inside, the halls and rooms went on forever. Our guess was that it was a six-family apartment building. When looking at it from the side, there were two structures (built at the same time, exactly the same way) with an attachment. (I know that there's an architectural term for this, sorry!)

With the exception of Detroit and other equally-abandoned cities, it seems that finding abandoned homes is a little more difficult than finding an abandoned school, insane asylum, etc. The economic reality of an individual is both less and more fluid than that of a corporation or municipality. For example, it would be a hardship for a working-class individual or family to leave to a house behind; they sell it (even for a low price, I would think). But they would want those funds and probably that closure. (Of course, they could sell it to a developer who does nothing with the property.) On the other hand, an individual dies and families move away.

There's an abandoned house on my block, and I'd love to know the story behind it. My neighborhood is pretty packed with houses; ours was built in 1906/08 and is 5 feet away from the neighboring house on one side and 2 feet away from the other house. Building is happening in my neighborhood, but due to the long-time residents, is a neighborhood in which most of the residences couldn't afford if they were to start from scratch in their homebuying. (ie: Their mean income couldn't afford to buy the property they own.) It's a nice, but old-style neighborhood.

Our house is at the bottom of a hill, near the main street. We rarely see the abandoned house at the top of the hill, except when somebody drives us home or when we rent a car and drive through the neighborhood looking for a parking spot. But it used to upset me that an abandoned house existed in our neighborhood. What about the value of the houses next to the abandoned place? Abandoned houses are great, but not in my neighborhood.

I've chilled on it a little. Live and let live. If I started researching the history of this house (and its owners), I'd probably look like a snoop. (Nonetheless, I might do so.) I find it intriguing that the owner doesn't sell the house for the land value. Where is the owner? I should've started photographing this house when we moved into the neighborhood three years ago...

Somebody's taking caring of this house a little bit, ie: the anti-littering sign and other small changes that I've seen over the years. Who?

When we first moved into the 'hood, I thought the house was locked tight. It isn't, and there are two easy ways to enter. The house isn't very stable, though, so I nixed walking around inside.

Here's a comparison shot of the house and its next-door neighboor. Of course, the shrubbery is overgrown. The sky is visible through the ceiling and roof; you can see a little of that in this photo. Since parking really is at a premium in our neighborhood, a 20-something couple parked their new candy apple-colored car in the driveway, while we were looking around and taking photos, and walked down the hill, presumably to a restaurant.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

energy audit

A couple of weeks ago, we had an energy audit of our house. We've been wanting one since we bought our house three years ago, but it's taken us a while to find somebody that we thought was objective enough to provide us just with the service of the audit.

The Association for Energy Affordability (AEANYC) charges $350 for an energy audit, and they do provide a report afterwards that gives you estimated cost of work. If you move forward with any of their suggestions, they will provide the contractors and also follow-up afterwards to monitor the various numbers.

The AEANYC also has programs for low-income families, to help the homeowner get a maximum amount of money back from the government to compensate for energy efficient changes made to the home and also to finance changes in a low-rate loan. We do not fit in that category, but AEANYC will still help us with rebates that are due to us, should we make changes.

This entry's photo shows the contraption that was placed on our door for a blower door test, which measures how much heating and cooling escape through unseen cracks and gaps in doors, windows, etc. When the blower door fan is turned on, the house gets very cool and drafty. We could even feel drafts when we placed our hands over electrical outlets!

Our house is 100 years old, so we had quite a few drafts. Our house also has no insulation. Ed installed fluorescent bulbs when we moved in, so that was already done. Other changes that were recommended to us in the report (received 2 weeks later) include low flow water devices, a CO detector directly above our stove (our only current one is linked to our fire and alarm system), a digital thermostat, and a new boiler.

AEANYC likes to look at energy audits as processes, not as a series of stand-alone factors. For example, the auditor asked us if temperature control in our basement and attic mattered to us. (It doesn't.)This allows for the creation of "zones" that need to be heated and cooled efficiently and those that are less of a priority.

Making some of these changes will pay themselves off in 10 years, and some will take longer. (Low flow water devices would have a quick payoff for us, for example; they're inexpensive and would save water costs immediately.) Some increase the value of the home, and some don't. (Insulation would increase the value of our home.) Some just would make things a lot more comfortable. ("Heated Area Infiltration Reduction 1" would make cold days more bearable.) These are the factors that we're going to think about when we meet with AEANYC in the next couple of weeks to move forward.

It was nice to get actual numbers behind some of our actualities and where we should be. Getting back to the blower door test (easily the sexiest part of the audit): Our house had a reading of 4800 CFM50, and AEANYC would like to lower that to 2800 CFM50. The current industry standard is 1030.98 CFM50. [The CFM50 is explained here.] (It should be noted that they measured every room in the blower door test, but the report gives us one total number.)

The recommendation we received is for $21,968 in work, which has a simple annual payback of 18.6 years. $10K of this is to replace our 1968 model boiler, which could be more efficient but isn't quite inefficient. (In other words, improvement would be marginal, so this increases the payback period significantly while emptying our wallets quickly.) I don't see a new boiler in our immediate future, but I am fantasizing about insulation and "Heated Area Infiltration Reduction."

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Happy Halloween!

Skeletal pelicans near our front door, and carved pumpkins (spider on left, and cannibal pumpkin on right) from myself and Ed.

Back to regular posting tomorrow!

Sunday, October 28, 2007

In time for Halloween: This Old House's 'Spooky Ruins'

This Old House online has a photo feature on Spooky Ruins, comprised of images from four members of Ars Subterranea. (Disclaimer: I'm involved with Ars Subterranea.) I was entertained by the posted comments; since this is for the This Old House audience, there's lots of talk about renovating the sites. And a fair amount of the posts argue which images are spooky and which are not. The photo feature is also currently linked to the main page of

My favorite is image 16 of 19. Which one is yours?

Image courtesy of Handcranked Productions.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Enter the humans

I haven't posted yet about my trip to Detroit, although I've been back since Sunday. Today's the first day I'm feeling somewhat normal, and even now it's pretty abnormal, as I've been off the caffeine for a day and a half now and keep wanting to make myself a fresh-brewed glass of iced tea.

There's so much to say about my six days in Detroit; where do I start? There are three big reasons that I went out: to see the abandoned structures of Detroit; to play a game; and to spend time with my friends exploring the abandoned structures and playing a game.

People have been saying that downtown Detroit is slowly being built back up. The biggest, newest thing in the city's history is a casino. I pretty much hate casinos. There are many abandoned schools, houses, factories, and churches, but not many abandoned casinos. (Hey, send me a link so I can gloat! ;))

Nonetheless, even with Detroit slowly rebuilding (A newspaper article that I read during my visit predicted 2022 as the year of The Motor City's recovery), there was plenty to see. There are still lots of abandoned sites, many completely accessible by simply walking through the area that was once the front door. I could've spent several more weeks there and not been bored in the slightest. Detroit was our playground for six days, and I'm thankful for that time.

I do get easily spooked in abandoned sites. One of my friends recently asked me if I felt the presence of ghosts in any of the places that I visited. The answer: No, not really. I'm afraid of the living people that I might meet during my explorations. For example, in one space, a man screamed bloody murder. His heart was being yanked out of his chest, and since we couldn't see him, we could only assume that the yanking was figurative. This happened in a space filled with light, yet it was terrifying to me.

In another instance, I saw figures moving down a hallway, at which three of us were at the end of, installing an artwork. As they got closer, I couldn't stand the suspense any longer and approached them. They had been unaware of our presence and stood completely still as I walked towards them. Everything was cool, but 45 minutes later, a fire blocked our entrance/exit, and I think it was these hooligans that set the fire.

One somewhat early morning found a couple of us exploring the residential neighborhood of Highland Park, one of the most crime-ridden neighborhoods in Detroit. We found a fantastic house to use during our scavenger hunt, only to return a day later and feel completely unsafe with the number of loitering males located immediately next to the site.

So, for me, it is the humans that are scary; not the buildings. Sure, asbestos, lead paint, uneven floors, and holes are all things to be aware of in an abandoned building, but they're not fear-invoking on an immediate level like humans.

Devil's Night is on October 30 in Detroit, and it is a day known for burning buildings. Signs were stapled to many abandoned sites stating "This building is being watched. Stop Halloween arson, call [phone number]". Mischief and the smell of gasoline filled the air, and I wouldn't be surprised if some Detroiters mistakenly thought that our group was comprised of pyromaniacs. Some previously-burned buildings have now become empty mounds of grass and dirt, while others stand on display half-charred. There is a history of burning buildings in urban areas - most notably, the Bronx - and there are many reasons behind the fires. Insurance claims and vandalism tend to top the list. In Detroit, law-abiding citizens in poor areas have burned crack houses down, and structures have been lit so that they are demolished quicker. Sometimes the houses are older wood and brick structures and sometimes they are made of different materials. I'll be thinking of Detroit this Tuesday.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

bringing le nain rouge

We'll be in Detroit for the next six days.

(I won't be here, because Slumpy is no longer.)

Monday, October 15, 2007

Open House New York | Sunday, October 7

I spent the second day of my Open House New York (OHNY) weekend in an area about 1/2 square mile large, maybe even smaller.

First, I worked my volunteer shift from 10-2 at Brooklyn Lyceum. I'd been there last year for a haunted house, which means that my perception of the place was completely different this time: for example, I wasn't getting buried alive or in completely dark, claustrophobic spaces (which is, indeed, what I do sometimes for fun).

The Brooklyn Lyceum is a former bathhouse turned community arts center. The amount of activity that happens at the Lyceum is amazing. During OHNY, about 40 people showed up to rehearse an opera that was going to be performed onsite that Wednesday; dads and sons were showing up to use the batting cage upstairs; and Fiona Apple and Yo La Tengo had performed there the night before as part of The New Yorker Festival.

Owner Eric Richmond gave an incredibly fascinating tour; he has conducted extensive research on the building and the neighborhood's history. I told him a couple of times to put some of these stories down on paper, because they'd make a great book. (Think disease & death, the mafia, and gentrification.) I spent the majority of my time telling people to sign the OHNY guest book and talking to Eric's sister, Laura, who was very nice. The Lyceum is a great example of a private individual restoring a landmark building and turning it into something positive for a "marginal" neighborhood.

After the Lyceum, I headed to the Gowanus Canal to sign up for a self-guided canoe tour with the Gowanus Dredgers. The wait was about two hours long, but another lone OHNY attendee convinced me to to visit sculptor Tom Otterness' studio while I waited. His tours were completely booked, but everybody present at the start time was invited in, so we lucked out. If you're from NYC, you probably recognize his work from the A, C, and E subway stop at 14th Street & 8th Avenue, my neighborhood stop for 8 years when Ed and I lived on 14th Street.

Otterness' work is very playful yet politically challenging. His cartoon-like metal works make the crankiest New Yorkers smile. Beyond a glance, though, his work is anti-establishment. After several questions about his technical process, I asked about the political aspect of his work and how his style helped make the medicine go down, so to speak. He reminded us that the story of Humpty Dumpty worked the same way and that he had contemplated the idea the previous evening while watching a Richard Pryor video. Otterness also said that the MTA has only restricted his work on one occasion, when he created rats wearing police uniforms. One of the rats is permanently on view at Max Fish, a Lower East Side bar that one of his friends runs.

Children and adults can climb into the head of this sculpture and have a moment to themselves.

Otterness with a work that he is giving to his child's public school.

Otterness' studio was full of warm vibes, but it was time to get back to the Gowanus Canal for my canoe tour. News earlier in the week of the Canal having gonorrhea did nothing to dissuade hundreds of people from wanting to paddle in the Canal's waters.

I was by myself, so I was grouped with two others for the trip. Since I had talked about kayaking, I was put into the steering position of the canoe. Although it took me a few minutes to get the hang of it, it was fun being the steerer. (I would not have wanted to sit in the middle, and I'm sure that my forceful paddling would've irritated anybody else in a steering position.)

The last several times I was in a kayak or rowboat (which seems to be happening almost frequently now), I was surrounded by nature. In Newfoundland, there were Bald Headed Eagles above us; and, yes, City Island looks like a national park compared to the Gowanus Canal. But being surrounded by industrial ruins while canoeing was almost just as enjoyable as being surrounded by natural beauty. Too bad our tours were only 15-20 minutes long; I could've stayed out there for a while.

Has it perished? Does it exist?

Yesterday, His Holiness the Dalai Lama finished three days of teachings at Radio City Music Hall, here in New York City. The teachings were on the Diamond Cutter Sutra & Seventy Verses on Emptiness.

To be blunt, the teachings, which I attended, made me aware of how I need to start practicing again and seriously read the sutras. I vascillated between drowsy and awake, aware and asleep, informed and ignorant. This was the second series of His Holiness' teachings that I've attended and the fourth time I've heard him lecture. When His Holiness talks to the general public, it is very easy to follow, but when he gives teachings, it's pretty dense for my level of knowledge.

There hasn't been a lot of philosophy and theory on this blog lately, and there is a connection between His Holiness' lecture and urban exploration. I hope to have some time to reflect upon the Diamond Cutter Sutra during my travels in the next week, and the below is a good start. At the very least, I will think of these verses and reflect upon abandoned sites:

From the Seventy Verses on Emptiness by Nagarjuna (translated into English by Gareth Sparham):

Permanent is not; impermanent is not; a self is not; not a self [is not]; clean is not; not clean is not; happy is not; suffering is not.

A state of existence would be a permanent state, and if it did not exist, it would be thoroughly annihilated. There would be those two [extremes] if there were things. Hence we do not assert things.

It is not [the mark of what] has not perished, nor [of what] has perished. What has lasted is not lasting and what has not lasted does not last either. The produced and unproduced are not produced.

All are impermanent. Alternatively, impermanence and permanence do not exist. Were things [to have an own-being], they would be impermanent or permanent, but how could that be?

Could somebody please write Mahayana Buddhism and the Art of Urban Exploration? I'd really like to read it.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Open House New York | Saturday, October 6

I'm home today recovering from a hectic Open House New York weekend. This year, I feel that I finally took full advantage of the weekend, seeing 7 different sites and volunteering a shift. The most frequent comment that I've been hearing lately about OHNY is that there's too much to see in too little time. This is absolutely true, and it's a game of geography and prioritization. (It was also 85 degrees outside, so heat was also a factor for some attendees.)

I was lucky to get a spot on Ellis Island's South Side tour. On Saturday, I woke at an extremely early hour to get to the Circle Line by 8 a.m. Fog was heavy in my Bronx neighborhood, and it was heavier in lower Manhattan, so heavy that the Coast Guard didn't let the first boat go until 10:15 a.m. (rather than the 8:30 boat that would've allowed the tour attendees to get to Ellis Island for the 9:30 a.m. tour). Since I had a 1:45 p.m. reservation on The High Line, I chose to forgo the later Ellis Island tour to ensure that I could visit the High Line. A new friend on line chose to give up her scheduled Fresh Kills tour to attend the Ellis Island tour. (!) The book will have to do for now...

I decided to go straight to Chelsea and see whatever I could in that neighborhood before the tour. My first stop was the General Theological Seminary on Ninth Ave. at 20th Street. It was a good warm-up spot and made me realize how a lot of Open House New York is (for me) about seeing the City in a different light. The Episcopalian Seminary is an entire city block of tranquility for the over 200 current students. The entrance building is going to be torn down in early 2008, and a higher building will take its place. Most of the OHNY sites that I visited will be changing architecturally in the near future.

Although listed in the OHNY guide, The Desmond Tutu Education Center was not open. It is run by the General Theological Seminary, so signs directed vistors to that site.

Since it was in the neighborhood, the next stop was Anderson Architects on West 25th Street. I could see its roof deck as I walked up 10th Avenue. Besides the gorgeous outdoor space, AA was interesting in that it was accessed via an elevator that opened directly to the street. (There's a gated door to the elevator that is swung open each morning.) The site gave me office envy, not only for the aesthetics of the space (both office and rooftop) but also for the creativity visibly demonstrated at each individual work station and throughout the floor.

Secret organizations are an interest of mine, and I quickly walked to the Grand Lodge of Masons; I've been told several times to visit this site. (NOTE: It is open for public tours Monday through Saturday.)

Although the rooms are grandly decorated, I most enjoyed hearing the Mason tourguides answer questions about the Masons. (My grandfather was a Mason, and I remember going to Mason picnics when I was young.) Many ideals and concepts were repeatedly stated: "The brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of god, whomever you may conceive him to be"; "We are not a social club"; "We cannot talk about religion or politics."

We were told that we would be attending the short tour; the 75-minute long tour was given during the week. An hour later, we had only toured half of the rooms (the tour is 6 floors long, each floor being two stories tall), and we had to leave before seeing "the wow room" in order to make our High Line appointment.

The half hour High Line tour covered what is known as "the upper third", the portion which runs over the West Side Rail Yards and is not secure from demolition (the other 2/3 of the High Line is secure and in construction to become a public park). We walked during the entire tour, and the scenery changed dramatically. I had an opportunity to go on the High Line in (I think) 2001, and I didn't go, so I was very happy to have another chance.

Here's a view of the West Side Rail Yards:

The big picture:

Preparing the lower 2/3 to become a public park:

Photographer Joe Sternfeld's book Walking the High Line documents the site circa 2000/2001. It is going to be reprinted this year with a few different photos, according to the Friends of the High Line volunteer that I spoke with on Saturday.

This was my Open House New York Saturday. The Sunday locations that I visited will be in another post.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Goodbye, summer?

Summer is my favorite season. I'm from Arizona, and I really love it when it gets hot outside. Sunshine makes me incredibly happy. (Having said that, I'm glad that I live somewhere with the four seasons.) I thought that last weekend would be the last weekend of summer weather, but that remains to be seen, as one newspaper article yesterday referred to our current weather as being typical of mid-July temperatures.

Last Saturday, I rode my bike again to City Island, approximately 10 miles each way. This forces me to exercise, and City Island is well worth the trip. There is nothing profound that I can say about the ride; it was just fun. And the tilapia that I had at The Original Crab Shanty was also good (and about 3 servings' worth).

On Sunday, Ars Subterranea held a low-key event, just a simple potluck on abandoned ships in Brooklyn. We all gathered in a retail store's parking lot, and then Julia led the way to the boats. Rotting wood, large nails, seaweed, crabs, and huge fish and jellyfish -- I saw none of this at City Island, but I wasn't looking, either.

The public who attends Ars Subterranea events (in this case, there was a large waiting list for the event) are really very interesting and enjoyable to hang around with, which is great. There was a metal crossway to an island at the location, and several attendees crossed over. I was a bit nervous -- I didn't want to fall into that water -- but the others were more than nice and supportive about it. (And I got to the other side easily.) There's a strong sense of camaraderie at urban exploration events, more so than in other aspects of my life.

The area with the abandoned boats and submarine (on top of which swans have built a home) is quite large. We went at low tide so that we could enjoy our picnic on the boat remains; during high tide, most of the site is unreachable.

Nathan Kensinger's blog has some romantic images of the event.

Monday, October 1, 2007

October's not just a publication.

Wow, October's here already! I spent this last weekend saying goodbye to the summer, and I'll post about that later this week.

In the meantime...Have you ever gone on a shopping spree and bought several books online, only to forget which ones you bought and then receive them like presents in the mail days later?

That's how I felt upon receiving Chain #11: Public Forms in today's mail.

Below is an excerpt from Akilah Oliver's "The Visible Unseen" (p 201). [The photo is a preview of my seasonal wrap-up and doesn't accompany the writing but is appropo.]

as a form
graffiti is in a constant state of tension
shifting its nomadic position spatially
it upsets
through combat
the bodies insist on painting themselves in markets they
seemingly have no legitimate right to
in its refusal to disappear it forces a discourse in the public
we are forced to see what we would rather

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Mannahatta Project in this week's New Yorker

Lots of good reading in this week's New Yorker, including Nick Paumgarten's eight-page article "The Mannahatta Project."

I've done a bit of research on my neighborhood, Woodlawn in the Bronx, but my starting point is in the late 1800s. The street was less crowded; my lot of land was four times as big (it was divided into four lots later on); the neighborhood wasn't as built up. But The Mannahatta Project, spearheaded by Wildlife Conservation Society landscape ecologist Eric Sanderson, takes New York City back to 1609, the year of a New York-based jacht ride by Henry Hudson and crew.

In 1609, everything was nature (and nature was everything). A four-mile beach ran from the Battery to West 33rd Street; lots more hills populated the city, before they were levelled; Manhattan was narrower; and there were 54 "ecological communities" in all.

Sanderson, whose office is at the Bronx Zoo and lives on City Island, is using 3-D pictures and the Muir web to determine what the City looked like before the humans invaded.
The Mannahatta Project aspires to minute verisimilitude, down to the varieties of moss, and will facilitate a kind of naturalist's version of George-Washington-slept-here. Eventually, Sanderson would like to put up plaques around town calling attention to this or that bygone pond or dune, or even to post recreations of 1609 vistas on the city's next generation of bus shelters. A visitor to Times Square, standing alongside the Naked Cowboy on the traffic island at Forty-fifth Street and Broadway, might be encouraged to see a convergence, under what is now the Marriott Marquis, of two freshwater creeks, one flowing out of a marsh beneath the headquarters of the New York Post, and the other from under the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis High School. The creeks were dammed by beavers to create a red-maple swamp, frequented by wood ducks and elk. The idea of all this, of course, is to get us to appreciate the remnants of the natural world, even in this degraded place, and then to work harder to preserve them, here and everywhere else. Still, although Sanderson might not admit it, such visions also have a way of helping us to savor our particular range of degradations. We've made a fine mess.
Harry N. Abrams is going to publish the book, though no publication date is mentioned. One of the more anecdotal portions of the article sees Paumgarten visit Inwood with Sanderson and Mannahatta project helper Markley Boyer. ("This is one of the few parts of Manhattan where you can get around successfully with a 1782 map," says Sanderson.)

The short paragraph about the human response to knowing this type of history was fascinating:
The attempt to strip one layer from the other, and to see where they match up, seems to simulate some as yet undiscovered cerebral nodes devoted to before-and-after visualization. The fantasy of depopulation, whether retroactive or futuristic, appeals to our sense of vanity and self-loathing. It may help explain the success of the book "The World Without Us," in which the author, Alan Weisman, describes what would happen to the earth if humans were no longer around. (In short, it would both bounce back and go to hell, in interesting ways.) It's Mannahatta in reverse. Weisman devotes a few pages to Sanderson's project, surmising that its findings will give us a clue as to what Manhattan would become in our absence. But, of course, the Manhattan of 1609 is lost. The city is far more than a flesh wound.
I think that the human response to most things is completely self-centered, even by the most enlightened people. My first photography criticism professor, Bill Jenkins at Arizona State University, once asked our small class why the nude was the most-photographed subject. "Narcissism" was my immediate response, although I couldn't explain why. Jenkins told me at the next class meeting that he'd thought about my reply and understood. I'm not sure which of these characteristics - narcissim, vanity, self-loathing - are inherent to the group of human beings (ie: a group trait) and which are individual.

The World Without Us is now on my reading list. Looking at the book's website timeline (sparingly done to maintain interest in the book), The World Without Us is about the beginning of decay and the return to nature. The concepts of decay and birth are definitely linked, to what extent I have yet to decide; do they have the same relationship as birth and death?

The article isn't online in its entirety, but The New Yorker's website has an accompanying slide show.

NOTE: Since writing this post, I was informed that that this book will be published in 2009, coinciding with the quadricentennial of the explorations of Henry Hudson and Samuel de Champlain in 1609, as well as the 200th anniversary of Robert Fulton's first steamship voyage along the Hudson River.

Passenger series. Indiana Sand Dunes; July 2, 2007; 11:49 a.m.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Furnace Press' Call for Submissions

I've started to do some work with Furnace Press, a small independent press formed by Ars Subterranea (of which I'm a Director) and Place in History. Below is a call for submissions; we will be publishing books about New York State ruins. Please spread the word to anybody you know who may be interested, or send me a link to anywhere where such a call for submissions could be listed.

Call for Submissions:

Furnace Press announces an author competition for its new publication series on urban ruins.
The Decomposition Series will consist of books focusing on noteworthy abandoned sites in New York State. The five books in this series will be 40-60 pages in length with black & white illustrations. The first of these publications will center on the ruins of Sea View, a former tuberculosis hospital in New York.

We're looking for proposals on interesting neglected structures with captivating visuals and intriguing histories. The text can consist of documentation, history, speculation, fiction, and/or personal experience. We're primarily looking for material that engages, arouses interest, and adds to the appreciation of forgotten ruins in New York.

There is no entry fee; the winning author will receive publication and contributor copies. The submission deadline is October 22, 2007.

Support for the Furnace Press Decomposition Series has been generously provided by the New York State Council for the Arts (NYSCA).

About Furnace Press
Furnace Press highlights obscure and neglected architectural subjects – urban decrepitude, industrial ruins, and disjointed neighborhoods – by publishing work that records the history of places facing obliteration, capturing them in transitive states. Co-founded in 2005 by Brooklyn-based arts groups Ars Subterranea and Place in History, Furnace Press publishes traditional paperback books, architectural pamphlets, and handmade books. Recent publications include Long Island City in Context by Paul Parkhill and Katherine Gray and Abandoned Tulsa by Alison Zarrow. Upcoming publications include The Space Between by John Law, short stories about bridge explorations; a handmade book Funeral Play by Julia Solis; and a Decomposition Series of publications focusing on urban decay in New York State. Furnace Press can be found online at

Monday, September 24, 2007

Ladies and gentlemen, set your schedules!

Open House New York is quickly approaching. This year, it's Saturday and Sunday, October 6 & 7. I am volunteering again this year, and I'll be at the Brooklyn Lyceum on Sunday from 10-2. (They tried to put me at the Woodlawn Cemetery for a second time, and I asked for a different assignment.)

One of the benefits of volunteering is that you get a button which allows you and a guest to jump the line at locations when you're not on shift, so I'll be running around the City on the Saturday. Volunteers also get a free tee-shirt, and this year there are several designs of shirts. This is the one I'll be wearing.

an intellectual curiousity

I was asked recently to write a short piece about an intellectual curiousity. This is what I wrote:

In between my undergraduate degrees in Sociology and Business Management, I spent quite a bit of time taking studio photography and photographic history classes. The photos without people were topically of the most interest to me, although I disliked traditional Western landscape photography - photos of mountain ranges and the red rocks of Sedona, for example. My favorite subject was photos of bedrooms, taken without the resident(s). To me, this was an authentic portrait.

Since 1998, I've been interested in abandoned buildings and locations. Any kind of abandoned building: sanitariums, hospitals, courthouses, train stations, even bridges that are off of the beaten path. Peeling paint, rusted ironwork, holes in the floor, and debris-filled rooms have all looked beautiful in a photograph.

Entering abandoned locations is called urban exploration (UE). Wikipedia's definition of UE is "the examination of the normally unseen or off-limits parts of human civilization."

Some urban explorers like the thrill of infiltrating a space in which they aren't allowed to enter, while others enjoy the physical challenge of entering such a site. UE photographers are capturing images of a location way past its prime: mental hospitals twenty years after the last patient left or a subway station that hasn't housed a subway car in fifty years. Is the fascination in the aesthetic, the lack of permission, or is it something else? Probably each UE photographer has a different philosophy. To me, UE photography is portraiture of a location captured during a transitive period with respect to the location's memory and its current state. The space's history is not completely separate from its involvement with people, but is divorced from that activity and stands on its own.

One of my photography teachers received a good amount of grant money to rephotograph photos from the early 1900s. In other words, he went to the same place at the same time of the year, decades later, and took the same picture. Sometimes the image looked the same - same mountaintop, same river, etc. But often there was evidence of man in the second photograph that wasn't present in the first - maybe a telephone wire, a car, or a dwelling.

I was traveling the Viking Trail in Newfoundland last year, and the photos that I enjoyed taking were those of a moose running, as seen through the passenger's window of a car; oil on a hiking trail; and a weathered bench in a forest of burnt trees. To me, today's urban exploration photography is last generation's rephotographing of the Western landscape. The abandoned building is not just an aesthetic perception. The musky smell, wet air, and the layers of muted color among decay are aesthetically appealing on some level, but it is the unspoken intellectual response that fascinates me and what I think about when looking at a photo of an abandoned building or exploring one with friends.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

meeting Camilo Jose Vergara

Camilo Jose Vergara is a Fellow this year at the New York Public Library's Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, and I had the opportunity to meet him a couple of weeks ago at a reception. Vergara's work is truly inspired and inspirational, and I love that he combines sociology (one of my undergraduate degrees is in sociology), photography, and urban exploration. There were lots of things I wanted to say to Mr. Vergara, but he seemed a little bit shy. I did attend with my copy of American Ruins, and I asked him to sign it. When I handed him my copy of his book, he retreated to his office and started flipping through the pages to ascertain which printing of the book I owned. I was elated when he noted that my book was well-used -- oh, the empty lots it's laid in -- and he recommended a few places for my upcoming trip to Detroit. He signed my book "for Gayle a fellow enthusiast of ruins."

Vergara is speaking about his Harlem project (see Invincible Cities link) on Wednesday, October 10 at the Museum of the City of New York. The program is titled Harlem: The Unmaking of a Ghetto. I'll report back afterwards.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Make sure you have your shots!

I actually have several blog posts I'll be writing once I get a couple of hours of "me" time that doesn't involve watching the new season of Survivor China.

I've spent the last few weeks doing a horrendous amount of bureaucratic life things -- getting new insurance for our house, responding to tax audits, scheduling an appointment for an energy audit, taking possession of old 401Ks from former employers...the really fun stuff.

It's also doctor's appointment time-of-the-year, and I really like that. I'm in good health (knock on wood), but I meet with all of my doctors on a regular basis, get a lot of tests done, etc. This week, I visited my opthamologist and my general physician.

My GP asked if I wanted a tetanus shot. "You can wait until 2009 if you want," he said, "or you can get it now." In May, I had a small amount of rust fall in my eye, and I have an exciting trip to downtown Detroit planned for next month, so I decided to go for it. Now it feels like a large, hard marble was implanted in my right bicep.

I got my last tetanus shot in October 1999, the week I got married. In a last-minute anxiety attack in NYC, I broke a glass and got a small chard in my foot. When I got to Arizona two days before my wedding, I went to see a doctor, who told me that it was going to be more painful to have the chard surgically removed than to temporarily live with it. (My question: "What should I do? I have to wear three-inch heels in a few days!") Luckily, our wedding suite, which we stayed in the night before our wedding, had a jacuzzi. I got in and massaged my foot; eventually, the small chard came out, and I walked down the aisle the next day with no problem at all.

You never know when you'll need your tetanus shot!

Sunday, September 16, 2007

starting the blog

I've been wanting to start this blog for a while now, over a year, but I was distracted by my life, MySpace, and by the urban landscape around me.

Urban Landscaped will encompass a lot of what is my life.

According to Mirriam-Webster online (, "urban" is "of, relating to, characteristic of, or constituting a city". Definition 2b of "landscape" (my husband says that I often use the most obscure definition of a word) is "a portion of territory that can be viewed at one time from one place".

I'll probably spend a notable amount of space taking about artists whose works excite me. One of my favorite photographers is Frederick Sommer. I own a couple of posters from his exhibitions, including the one featured in this post, which is framed and in the guest bedroom of my house. I like Sommers' image (the top one) much, much better than Adams'. Sommers work is so reality-based, no BS from that guy. And Sommers' reality is indeed achingly beautiful.

A couple of weeks ago, Ed and I rode our bikes out to City Island for a Labor Day get-together. One of the party attendees said that she had written extensively about Sommers' work in college. There are some topics that are good party talk and some that aren't. It took all my effort to not initiate an hour-long talk about Frederick Sommer, and I went swimming instead.