Wednesday, December 16, 2009

visiting The Christmas House

When I was young, one of my favorite Christmas activities was going to this Christmas building in New Jersey. Everything was Christmas, and it was about a half hour of walking through Christmas scene after Christmas scene. My grandparents took my brother and I, so it was also "dress up" day. After all, you couldn't go to the Christmas building without dressing up in your best outfit!

So it made me very happy to find the Bronx version of my Christmas building, and that is The Christmas House, located in Pelham Gardens. I've been noticing The Christmas House for years now; even when it's not Christmas season, the pink paint and styling is seen, and sensed, from about a quarter of a mile away. With a toddler in tow this year, we had to visit it at night, when we could see the house in all its nighttime lighting and glamour.

Unfortunately, not all of the glamour was visible during our visit; since it'd rained a couple of days earlier, there was still a bit of dampness, and one of the family's daughters/installation creators was outside vacuuming the side of the house's concrete pink floor when we arrived. And most of the life-sized figures were wrapped in plastic. There is such an effort made on this installation (each figure repainted every year; $1,000 weekly electricity bills during the viewing season; etc.) that it's only completely visible when there's not a chance that it's going to rain.

Since almost all of the mannequins/models/figures had clear plastic wrap around them, a few questions came to mind: Since this is such an over-the-top, gaudy display, does the plastic wrap actually help me enjoy the installation better? Is this outsider art? Are the people who live here insane? What percentage of people who visit this house think it's beautiful? Why?!

I have a relative who LOVES sculpture that looks like The Christmas House. The over-use of pastel shades conveys delusional optimism. My husband says that the color palette is perhaps Victorian. He also says that a theory recently emerged that Roman statues and sculptures were also brightly painted.

Of course, another obsession illustrated at The Christmas House is the "importance" of celebrities. While talking to the daughter, she matter-of-factly told me "who" was inside, waiting to come out: Michael, Elizabeth, Brigitte, and more. To me, the models partying behind the glass sliding door has always been the most bizarre part of this installation, having nothing to do with Christmas and everything to do with status quo. (The middle-aged daughter also expressed that it would always be "Hollywood".)

I'll be back next year. The daughter gave us the house's phone number so that we could call ahead and find out when all of the mannequins are uncovered and outside, so as not to waste a trip. But I'm just as happy to see them wrapped in plastic, living life fully without regards to time, but physically looking "caught in the past".

Friday, December 11, 2009

would-be P Diddy employees go urban exploring

I work PR for an organization based on urban exploration, and we've received numerous "press requests" over the years.

One of the more non-relevant ones we've recently received was a request from a producer of I Want to Work for Diddy (season 2). I'd seen a few episodes of this show when the request was made, and I had a difficult time imagining how supplying this reality show with a space would be good PR for my organization. Yes, many of our "press requests" are actually requests for our free service of "location scounting" (as if).

So when I saw contestants running through a dark tunnel during a commercial for the show, I knew that this was the segment that we had been called about.

The segment lasted less than five on-air minutes. Each contestant ran through dark tunnels until they found a note from Diddy. This action supposedly showed Diddy each person's commitment and ability to get through a "scary situation".

It was pretty stupid, and I'm glad we didn't participate.

I'm not including hyperlinks in this blog post. You'll have to Google "I Want to Work for Diddy" to find information on the show.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Concrete Plant Park

A great article about decommissioned train stations in the Bronx ran in yesterday's Times. Three stations were featured: the Westchester Avenue station, the Morris Park station, and the Hunts Point Avenue station. I had already seen the Morris Park and Hunts Point stations in person, so of particular interest was the Westchester Avenue station, which is also the only one that hasn't been functionally recycled in some fashion. (Morris Park is now a gun club, and Hunts Point contains neighborhood retail outlets.)

But the really interesting story was semi-buried and mentioned briefly:
A trip to the Westchester avenue station is worth the cab fare, in part because right next door is Concrete Plant Park, a combination green space and industrial archaeology project that runs along the Bronx River. Two sides of the station are visible from the street, and two sides are visible on the park side, for a 360-degree view of this train wreck of decay.

So, let me get this right -- an abandoned train station and an urban archaeological site in the same place, in the Bronx?! How could I not immediately visit?

(note: This is an easy Bronx location to visit. The park is located right at the Whitlock Avenue subway station on the 6 line; the park entrance itself is at Westchester Avenue and the Sheridan Expressway.)

Concrete Plant Park is a non-typical name for a green space, but it seems that things are headed in a more organic direction when it comes to NYC parks. Just like the High Line, effort was made to preserve a site's uniqueness. Highly-stylized yet organic-looking seating, wildflowers, and the use of stone landscaping create a sense of calm while accentuating the inherent historical industrial component of the locale. Yay, New York City Department of Parks & Recreation!

Of course, a view of a body of water on a sunny day also helps. Looking just beyond the water, a park visitor sees a group of graffiti'd building. In the center of the park are various concrete plant fixtures, recently painted over with RustOleum (or at least that's what it looks like). The Gowanus Canal also came to mind as an aesthetically-similar project.

A lot of stories already detail the acreage and costs associated with this park, which will be part of the Bronx Greenway (our household is eagerly awaiting the completion of this project, so that we can easily bike through bigger swaths of the Bronx and Westchester County). All I want to convey is my feeling of happiness at discovering Concrete Plant Park. Connecting the Hunts Point and Soundview neighborhoods, I hope that the locals see the Park as the gem that it is. Taggers already got one of the chess tables (Really, they can't go after a bigger challenge?! Tagging a table is lame.), and we saw only three people in the park during our visit. (Two walked though the park together and one spent a considerable amount of time taking in his surroundings.) But it seems like a lot of events are held in the park during warmer seasons (there is a kayak launch), and I look forward to returning. A few child-focused details would've been nice, but there's a lot to take in/see/do. Still, the Parks logo located at the top of one of the towers made me chuckle.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Vergara exhibition at the New-York Historical Society

Urban Landscaped readers know that I'm a fan of Camilo José Vergara's photographs and books. Vergara has a distinct viewpoint blending UE photography, sociology, and street photography, and he's author of two of my favorite books American Ruins and Unexpected Chicagoland. But his work hasn't been shown on museum walls for a good couple of years in NYC; I missed that party in the late 1990s and early millennium.

Harlem 1970-2009: Photographs by Camilo José Vergara was up at the New-York Historical Society through last Saturday, July 11th. I saw the show on its last day, or I would've posted earlier.

I had incorrectly assumed that Harlem, 1970-2009 would primarily consist of Vergara's "storefront" series, ie: his shots of the same storefront over a period of time (ie: 2038 5th Avenue 1992, 1996, 1999, 2005). I really like this series and saw him talk about it once over a private lunch gathering at The New York Public Library (and I received a place mat of the above series as a souvenir!). But a lot of this work is available on Vergara's Invincible Cities website, and I wasn't chomping at the bit to see it on the wall.

Instead, Harlem, 1970-2009 demonstrated Vergara's mix of photography with a wide variety of styles and subject matter. (Looking at the dates of the work, it also seems that Vergara might've shot quite a bit specifically for the show.) Storefronts, as the section was called, was a small part of the exhibition and consisted of only six groupings (one of which is reproduced on my place mat). Other sections were titled Transformations, Heart of Harlem, Religion, Landmarks and Benchmarks, Graphics, and Obama. If anything, Vergara tried to cover too much territory, covering forty years of Harlem in the one hundred photos on display.

Street photography started the exhibition in a rather calm, understated way. Thankfully, it was assumed that "Harlem" was a known entity; no paragraphs based on the historical migration of people to its area. Storefronts warmed the viewer up to representation through inanimate objects and landscape. Transformations, my favorite section, followed. Transformations consisted of diptychs and triptychs, mainly slightly aerial, of specific intersections , ie: Frederick Douglass Boulevard between West 134th and West 135th Street (1993 and 2008) and Frederick Douglass and West 143rd Street (1988, 2001, and 2007). Parking lots and independent fish markets give way to office buildings with ground level Duane Reade and Chase Bank locations. It's a zoomed-out version of Storefronts and Vergara's answer to Mark Klett's Rephotographic Survey Project from the late 1970s. (I'm not even close to tiring of rephotography.)

The only weak link in this section was the confusing diptych of Untitled (Harlem Welcomes President Clinton), 2001 and Untitled (Marathon), 2008. While Vergara often doesn't rephotograph in a precise manner (he doesn't take out the GPS like Klett does), these two locales seemed disparate and needed additional information for the viewer. Does this duo convey a divestment of Harlem because the 2008 photo has a boarded-up building in the foreground? I don't know. But I bet that Vergara, who holds an M.A. in Sociology from Columbia, had ideas about this.

Graphics featured murals (not graffiti, which has been featured in many shows recently) and was interesting. But fascinating was Vergara's narrative, in words, accompanying the images. In just a few sentences, Vergara dissected Harlem's mural trends from the last 40 years: 1970s murals were "angrily condemning racism and slavery"; "depictions of deceased drug dealers and their victims were popular" in the 1980s and 1990s. "Today the facades of buildings in Harlem advertise such products as gin, beer, Old Navy clothing, BMW sport cars, sneakers, black TV shows or schools, and rappers." Vergara's conversation with a building superintendent is summarized on a label accompanying a photo of a MLK mural located behind garbage cans (Coincidentally,the two men talked on MLK Day). A recent ad for 50 Cent's Formula 50 water is accompanied by labels claiming that 50 Cent and P Diddy are Harlem's current figureheads.

The Religion section of the exhibition featured photos taken from 2007 through 2009; there were photographs of churches and people (in their Sunday finest). Vergara has done the church beat before (see How the Other Half Worships). "Although there are over 300 congregations in Harlem today, many of the smaller ones have closed or moved, and Harlem is no longer an incubator of struggling churches."

The photographs in Landmarks and Benchmarks were not my favorite of Vergara's work, but there were a lot of interesting Harlem factoids. Do you know what "Koch" windows are? Isn't the Mount Morris Fire Watchtower an interesting structure? Why has the building that housed the Renaissance Ballroom and Casino stayed shuttered since 1979? The photographic highlight was the cross formation of "security" photos, but stylistically, they were very different than the Vergara photos we know, and it was a bit of a turn-off.

The Obama and Sculpture sections were interesting, but the exhibition would not have lacked in their absence. The Heart of Harlem photographs were displayed in the center of the space and were nice street photography shots of electic Harlem residents.

Harlem, 1970-2009: Photographs by Camilo José Vergara displayed a broader style of Vergara's photography; in and of itself, this made the show thought-provoking. Aesthetically, it seemed a bit like a Vergara retrospective (without American Ruins, that is) with the cohesive subject matter of Harlem creating the bonds between different types of photographic works.

While I was in the exhibition space, a group of approximately a dozen sightseers entered the space; most were in their 20's, but a few were older. After about ten minutes of looking at photographs on one side of the room, the tour guide/leader of the group asked the then-seated-and-ignoring-the-show group "What do you want to do?" Several voices responded quickly: "Shopping!" The tour guide was disappointed. "Really?" he asked. After several minutes of conversation about future plans, one 20-something male said, "(Let's) Go to 125th Street." The group left shortly thereafter. Most likely, the group shopped and got to see billboards of 50 Cent and P Diddy. But they probably didn't see Vergara's Harlem, and that's kind of sad.

Image is Vergara's 65 East 125th Street (2007).

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Plymouth, Montserrat

I first heard of Montserrat while reading CREEM magazine. Montserrat was the home of AIR Studios, where the English bougeoisie "rock" musicians went to record albums in the 1980s. (The Police, Paul McCartney, and Elton John all recorded there.) Plymouth is the capital of Montserrat and was the only port entry. I missed the news in 1997 when a volcano covered 80% of the city with over 4 feet of lava.

Plymouth is a future archaeological site, although it seems that it would be so cost-prohibitive that the city will most likely never be dug out. It could be a great above-ground urban exploration site, but it is fenced off, due to possible danger of further volcanic action.

Ed brought Plymouth, Montserrat to my attention, so thanks to him for most of the links.

For basic info, start at the Wikipedia entry.

A few photos of the destruction can be seen here.

This page is encouraging tourists to now-safe Montserrat. It provides a nice contrast to the previous photos.

This is a first-person testimonial to vacationing in Montserrat (two different photos of the destruction available). (I like the claim that if one drinks the water of Montserrat, he or she will return to the island.)

Here's a nice Flickr shot of the landscape, taken from the Caribbean sea.

Here's the entire collection of the tagged "Plymouth Montserrat" Flickr photos. This is a great look-through.

Image is of postcard created and photographed by Qule Pejorian and available to share and remix via the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Friday, March 6, 2009

nostalgia photography

Is taking photos of abandoned places in America too often an act of nostalgia, and if so, what does that mean about the work? Is "urban exploration photography" an excercise in nostalgia?

Vanishing America: the End of Main Street: Diners, Drive-Ins, Donut Shops, and Other Everyday Monuments by photographer Michael Eastman prompts the question. Vanishing America has received rave reviews, and Eastman is often compared to the important and influential photographer Robert Frank.

There seems to be a good-sized group of photographers documenting the America of yesteryear. Sometimes this fits into my definition of urban exploration photography, and sometimes it doesn't. Michael Eastman straddles the dividing line, and in my opinion, it makes his work less spectacular.

Don't get me wrong: Eastman's photographs are quite nice, and his subject matters are worth documenting. But he's doing too much in Vanishing America, in my opinion, and his supposed subject suffers for it.

Eastman divides subject matter into 10 chapters: Theaters, Churches, Hangouts, Doors, Signs, Stores, Services, Automobiles, Hotels, and Restaurants. There are photographers who could fill a book on one of these subjects, and have done so. (Camilo Jose Vergara's How the Other Half Worships for churches; Zoe Leonard's Analogue for storefronts) and many others who have done extensive work documenting the other subjects and could fill a book given the opportunity (Roy Colmers' Doors, NYC, although dated and New York-based, is much more provoking and less architectural).

Having said that, Vanishing America is supposed to be about Main Street, USA. Most of us miss Main Street, I think, from New York City to New Orleans, St. Louis to Tempe, AZ. But are all of these photos really from what was the Main Street in these cities? I have my doubts, and it's a small photo titled "Dinosaur Parts" outside Sedona, Arizona (p87) that reinforces my reasoning. I ride the route from Phoenix to Sedona almost annually, and this doesn't look like the Main Street of Sedona (which is still very much an active Main Street). It looks like new sculptures created to entertain. And "outside Sedona, Arizona" doesn't scream "Main Street". One photo I really like is the "Interior of a Bar, Clarksdale, Missippi", which serves as an unofficial centerfold of the book, printed on two pages (p122-3) and depicting cheap white blinds with marker writing on each slat ("Bananarama 2002"; "Bacon Luvs Da Blues"; "Rhonda W. Cheryl P. 8/20/05"). But it doesn't speak Main Street, and it isn't really from yesteryear, as indicated by visible dates.

Photos like "Fish, Pest Control, & Roofing, Saint Louis Missouri" (p91), "Geller's Shoes, Providence, Rhode Island" (p127), and "Along Highway 1, Guadalupe, California" (p94-5) do indeed support a theory that Main Street ain't what it used to be. But Eastman's desire to include interesting photos overrides his desire to provide a cohesive statement that isn't just nostalgia. Was "Red Building with Coke Sign, Southern Maine" (p190) really on a Main Street? (If so, wow, look at all of those TREES and SPACE.) And the one photo of NYC "Thirsty? (Slated for Demolition), Coney Island, New York" shows off the great Burlesque at the Beach paintings of Fire Eater and Madame Twisto, but this isn't really Main Street on Coney Island; it's a beach and boardwalk development.

Eastman's photos are nice, but the book could've been better by tighter selection and adhering to the thesis. This is nostalgia in full force.

Douglas Brinkley wrote the excellent foreword. so excellent that sections of it stand on their own, despite the constant crowing of Eastman's work.

I'm genetically predisposed to visit the same locales Eastman shares with us in his dreamlike Vanishing America. Where some might find gloom in these anti-Rockwellian photographs, I find a liberation from the glaring rat race of American life.

Or maybe it's best to think of Vanishing America as a book of Sunday photographs, since Sunday is the loneliest day of the week. Like in the Kris Kristofferson song "Sunday Morning Coming Down," I imagine Eastman surveying an empty Main Street while the new-fangled box-store churches on the outskirts of town are full of repenters. The murals he documents are not the kind Thomas Hart Benton erected to promote the vigorousness of Populist America.

I don't agree with everything Brinkley writes ("You're better off building a fire by the side of the road than trying to reclaim one of these hard-luck properties"; "Michael Eastman still needs to photograph your footprints"), but his essay is thought-provoking and ties the photos together in a way the photographs don't do themselves.

I will use Brinkley's voice to make a final critique of Eastman. Brinkley writes "There are no Tennessee waltzes or Texas two-steps vibrating out of these juke joints, no 'Happy Trails' to close out the day at the music hall." I disagree. There's a photo of the interior of the Broken Spoke, a honky tonk music venue in Austin Texas (p44) across from a photo of an unnamed "Dance Hall" (also in Austin, Texas). The Broken Spoke is indeed still very active and heralded venue, and the photo of the "Dance Hall" looks like a nicely upkept place as well. Austin, Texas loves Americana and to say these photos are part of a Vanishing America is simplistic. People are still living this every day (in this case, probably every weekend). The aesthetic might be different than "the norm" (of non-Austin locales), but that doesn't make it Vanished. In fact, these photos indicate that this culture is CURRENT. These photos, and several others, show that along with the REAL photos supporting Eastman's hypothesis, there are photos supporting Eastman's own aesthetic experience of buildings and status quo. Overall, not only is Vanishing America a nostalgic experience, it's a nostalgic experience of Eastman's own thoughts and assumptions, many of which are stereotypical and simplistic.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

abandoned towns

Now that the economy is in a bit of a free fall (or so it seems), I've noticed an increased number in articles about abandoned towns, cities, and neighborhoods.

In the February 1 issue of The New York Times, there was an article about Braddock, Pennsylvania, a "distressed municipality." Braddock is a former steel factory town.
"Everyone in the country is asking 'Where's the bottom?'" said the mayor, John Fetterman. "I think we've found it."

Braddock's mayor is working to rebuild Braddock, publicizing it as a place to buy inexpensive real estate and build urban farms. He is also personally working to save a handful of buildings.

After reading the article and looking at Braddock's Wikipedia entry, a few factoids stuck out:

The first free library built by Andrew Carnegie was built in Braddock in 1887.

In 1936, the first A & P supermarket opened in Braddock.

Lauren Tewes, the actress who played Cruise Director Julie McCoy on The Love Boat tv series, was born in Braddock. (I loved The Love Boat as a child.)

Braddock will have another moment in the sun when the feature film The Road opens up later this year. (note: The Road was postponed from its November 2008 release after the U.S. financial markets melted, as "they" felt that the public didn't want to see an apocalyptic movie.)

"If struggling communities don't preserve their architecture," Mr. Fetterman said, "there's no chance of any resurgence down the line." Sometime soon, he worries, Braddock will pass the point of no return.

This article makes me want to watch the movie and then visit Braddock and look for locales seen in the film. Perhaps an urban explorer tour guide wants to make some extra money giving tours? I bet the mayor would work with you to set up safe UE tours of Braddock.

Mayor Fetterman's website is at .
(It's a pet peeve of mine that The Times' "policy" rarely allows for disclosure of websites it cites.)

Here's the Times article and a Pittsburgh City Paper article from 2006.

Image taken from the "Ruins" section of the official Braddock website.