Monday, September 30, 2013

Water tower repartee.

Even if it’s not a commissioned piece like the mural from my previous post, the landscape of artistic expression in Detroit is rich.  Since such a huge portion of it comes in the form of graffiti—which is almost always by definition an act of vandalism—it’s understandable that my opening sentence might carry a whiff of irony.  But any city that loses nearly 70% of its population will inevitably contain within its jurisdiction a large amount of unmaintained space.  In Detroit, such space includes both raw, formerly developed land as well as vacant structures.  Abandoned buildings may comprise the most conspicuous acts of graffito, but sometimes one can find it in unexpected places, like this water tower.
Pondering it a little more deeply, it’s no surprise that the tank became a canvas.  It presides over a difficult-to-access, largely depopulated neighborhood near the intersection of Dequnidre Road and the Davidson Freeway.  Typically, the area probably doesn’t receive a great deal of monitoring, so it would be easy to sneak around and make it up the ladder to the tank.  In addition, the tank stands only a few hundred feet away from a very prominent location, the I-75 corridor, so thousands of motorists pass by it daily.  For a typical vandal, this tower is a dream come true: a clandestine site for execution that will offer a big payoff in terms of visibility.  But what about the artwork itself?

It looks like a monochrome hand in a popular gesture, in which the thumb holds down the ring and middle finger, while the pinky and index finger remain elevated—the sign of the horn.  While it carries many other connotations, from warding off bad luck to cuckoldry, the most common and enduring connotation in the United States is a sort of good-natured expression of solidarity within heavy metal and headbanging subcultures—certainly the more likely implication in a northern industrial city like Detroit, when compared with its other well-known signifier, the “hook ‘em horns” rally at University of Texas at Austin.

A closer look, however, suggests that the painting wasn’t always so whimsical.
Someone painted over the upper half of the middle and ring finger, using an almost identical color to the tank of the water tower, thereby more or less blotting them out.  What this means is the original gesture was a raised fist.  And though it, too, carries a variety of implications, nearly all of them include a degree of political protest—a gesture of collective revolt against an oppressive authority.  By “whiting out” the original graffito, the second vandal muted and, by large extent, trivialized the original message.  If the original full fist embodied the iconic “black power” salute, it is possible that the actions of the second vandal is demonstrating a counter-protest toward black power, which, by nature of reducing it to a adrenaline-fueled rally for “rock ‘n roll!”, some might construe as belittling racism.  Simultaneously, others perceive the defiance implied by the black power raised fist to perpetuate racial differences that are inherently prejudicial and divisive in nature.

I’m not going to fan the flames any further, because I can’t begin to know what the original intent was, nor that of the palimpsest the followed.  While it could demonstrate the broader implications of racial tension in Detroit, it might simply reveal little more than two graffiti artists who had differing visions for a water tower.  Since neither artist had any vested right to paint this tower, it’s always fair game for another person to destroy the original aesthetic message, and it’s possible that someday a third will recover the original of solidarity in political protest—or turn it into something unrecognizable.  That at least two artists treated the tower as their canvas has less to say about the content than about the level of supervision over this part of town.  It’s not that common to find vandalized water towers, because in most places you simply couldn’t get away with it.  Detroit is clearly different in that regard.  And while Detroit’s distinction might not say much about the City’s prevailing ability to fight property crime, it certainly punctuates the landscape visually with a density of self-expression we’re not so likely to see in, say, Disneyland—or Manhattan, for that matter.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Testing the mutability of murals.

Urban murals, once a rarity outside of a few pioneering cities such as Philadelphia, have emerged in the last decade or so as a sine qua non for any big-city civic art initiative.  Philadelphia might still be the national (or even global) leader through its Mural Arts Program, but many other cities are trying to give Philly a run for its money.  In recognition of having won the bid for Super Bowl XLVI back in 2012, the City of Indianapolis commissioned a variety of local artists to festoon the sides of various buildings with 46 different murals, significantly boosting its corpus in the process.  Inevitably, these murals vary greatly both in prominence and quality, but some of them have generated significant positive buzz in the last two years.  One of the highest profile (and best-loved) of Indy’s murals is a giant recreation of Kurt Vonnegut, looking about as avuncular one could ever hope from the city’s most lovable curmudgeon.

In fear of seeming like too much of a killjoy, let me defend the mural not just for its great attention to detail, the formidable skill of its creator, and its unquantifiable boost to the city’s self-image by reminding the world that it was the boyhood home of one of the 20th century’s most respected satirists and social critics.  Hopefully Kilgore Trout would approve of my cynicism, though, when I follow this paean with a serious disclaimer.  Doggone it, this mural has Kurt beaming onto a parking lot along Massachusetts Avenue, a fashionable yuppie nightlife corridor that will inevitably turn into a mixed-use development eventually, shrouding the gargantuan Vonnegut into a back alley.  The salience the mural enjoys now from emptiness of the parking lot will eventually lead to its downfall—or, at least, its almost complete concealment when a building sprouts up.  (Then again, Kurt, ever the rake, may just as easily have approved of such a self-defeating gesture.)

But this Vonnegut dilemma hints on a recurring problem with many murals: the conceivers deliberately place them on blank walls that probably wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the adjacent building the faced demolition years prior.  Such is the case for many of the murals in Philadelphia, as well as this earlier mural (predating the Super Bowl) that I blogged about a few years ago.  Too many murals serve as unintentional placeholders, beautifying a featureless flat surface until something else comes along that is far more likely to stimulate economic activity in the area—and, yes, that “something else” nearly always translates to a new infill development.

Michigan’s largest city can claim its own artistic ammunition, boasting a variety of sculptures and murals, both amateur and professional.  I’m not sure if Detroit’s murals emerged under a centralizing organization in the same way as the murals of Philadelphia or Indianapolis—after all, the city appeared at one time to have a Detroit Mural Factory that trained students in the practice, but I cannot find a centralized webpage with up-to-date information for this Mural Factory.  At any rate, the existing array of murals certainly offers a powerful contrast within a city that, by most empirical assessments, suffers a higher-than-average problem with graffiti, when compared to other American cities.  And though graffiti is far less common place across the American landscape than it is in most other countries, Detroit seems to have more than its fair share, no doubt due to the higher concentration of vacant, neglected or underutilized buildings.

So it is with no small amount of comfort that I recognize a highly effective mural that sits on Woodward Avenue, one of the city’s prime arterials, just south of Warren Street, in the heart of the Wayne State University campus.
Whatever one might think of the mural’s broader aesthetic ambitions, it certainly adds color and texture to an otherwise monochrome flat surface.  It’s big—possibly bigger, all in all, than the lanky Vonnegut in Indianapolis.  But it shares the same predicament: it rests on a blank wall to a building whose kissing cousin came down years ago.  In its place is this big grassy lot.
And the lot is expansive—huge.  Here’s looking at it from the other direction (northward) along Woodward:
And pivoting a little bit to the left, in a northwesterly direction:
Not surprisingly, a city that has suffered as much extensive depopulation and disinvestment as Detroit has more than its share of vacant lots, the verdant reminders of mighty Art Deco buildings that once lined this corridor.  In many quarters of the city, the urban prairies will likely sit there for years to come.

But not here in Midtown, and certainly not on Wayne State’s campus.  Leadership at WSU has pushed significantly to shift its prevailing identity over the years.  Since its founding as a medical school and training college, the university has burgeoned and evolved into Michigan’s third-largest.  But it has rarely (if ever) claimed a significant presence of live-in students.  Long a commuter school, the reputation—particularly in Detroit’s darkest days of crime and disinvestment—was that students at WSU drove to the university from the suburbs, took their classes, and got out by dusk.  Throughout the 1990s, the campus did not even offer dorm living.  Though the transition is undoubtedly a bit more nuanced than I’m portraying here, the University’s leadership and economic development arm realized that the chasm between the school and the surrounding Midtown neighborhood was only growing.  And it certainly wasn’t helping the desirability of being a student at Wayne State.  As a result, the school has engaged in a flurry of both dormitory construction and partnerships with developers to encourage a greater student life around the campus that lingers after hours.  Consequently, Midtown has as bustling pedestrian scene that was scarcely visible 20 years ago.  More eyes on the street translates to greater perception of safety, and the presence of a youth culture with some disposable income has spurred a concomitant college-town retail scene.

This broad scythe at a history of Wayne State’s involvement in Midtown inevitably cuts some corners (pun intended), but in the long and short of it is, it’s only a matter of time before this grassy corner at the intersection of Woodward and Warren will host a new building, if not several.  And it’s equally certain that, in due time, a developer seeking to maximize the FAR (floor-area ratio) on the parcel will want to build in very close proximity to the existing building with the mural.  The developer may even choose to touch the adjacent structure.  Which means that this elegant adornment could fall into oblivion, frustrating not just the artist but also the community support that helped to conceive it.

Fortunately, the minds behind the mural have an ace in their sleeve.
Notice the tiniest shadow at the lower left corner of the mural?  That’s right—it’s not directly painted onto the wall.
It appears to be a sort of canvas that has been stretched to tautness through tying its corners to hooks implanted in the mortar between bricks.  I suppose, if we’re purists, this means that this piece of artwork no longer fits the traditional definition of a mural.  But it will likely fake anyone who isn’t scrutinizing.  And, more importantly, it means that the canvas can come down when a building goes up next door, then get installed somewhere else.

From an artistic standpoint, my suspicion is that this display has lost a bit of credibility.  After all, it didn’t require an artist’s careful assessment of the space, nor the dedication of applying paint to a rough surface from a vertiginous position.  Though clearly “drawn” as an original, it’s quite possible this canvas’s existence depended upon a digital magnification.  So maybe it’s cheating.  But the fact remains that neither WSU, future developers, nor whatever arts program finally implemented the “mural”—none will have to witness the demise of this work of art in a few years.  The same can’t be said about Kurt Vonnegut in Indy, nor the hundreds of murals emblazoned on blank sides of buildings in Philly.  Migrating this canvas to another big wall should seem like a minor effort in comparison, and in a city that has witnessed so much renegade art in the wake of its abandonment, the citizens will finally get to see a painting salvaged, as welcomed new construction fills the void.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

When egalitarianism rests on two wheels.

With scores of urban advocacy blogs out there, I find it hard to imagine that I have much to add to the conversation on the defining characteristics of Mackinac Island, Michigan.  Even if the northerly island in Lake Huron—a former Jesuit mission, Ojibwa sacred site, and strategic military encampment—elicits little more than a head-scratching among people from the coasts, nearly everyone in the Midwest is at least familiar with the name.  And in the summer, the isle draws tens of thousands of visitors daily from downstate and elsewhere in the Great Lakes region.  Even those who consider the Great Lakes a pale substitute for a genuine sand beach would probably concede that the town itself is fairly picturesque.

While most visitors to the Island will first encounter the dense cluster of buildings along Main Street, the overwhelming majority of the 3.8 square mile island is unsettled.  Not only is the entire island a State Park, but the National Park Service also classifies it as a Historic Landmark. The impeccable condition of the buildings should therefore come as no surprise.  What distinguishes it from most other historic districts, however, is that it shows little to no evidence that the historic preservation movement that emerged in the mid 20th century spawned a revival of Mackinac.  It’s difficult if not impossible to spot any telltale indications that the town was ever down-and-out: few, if any, architectural embellishments fail to conform to the rest of the structure; not a single building (some of which are over two centuries old) is in even slightest disrepair; no parking lots where a building once stood.  It looks like the town never went out of style.  And, to be frank, Mackinac probably never did suffer.  It earned popularity with tourists after the Civil War, then quickly expanded to serve as the premier summer destination for wealthy downstate industrialists during the Victorian era, the time period influencing the preponderance of the town’s architecture.
Generalizing though it may be, the nation’s pioneer spirit has always valued novelty—whether through our persistently decentralizing metropolitan areas, or for our storied history of domestic vacation destinations that peak suddenly then decline to a permanent malaise (Atlantic City, Monticello NY, Salton Sea).  Or, conversely, those vacation destinations that have demonstrated sea legs for remaining viable over many decades—Las Vegas, Disneyland—primarily because they have reinvented themselves every few years through the demolition and construction of new attractions.  Mackinac Island has done none of this, yet has continued to age gracefully.  It’s an outlier.

Of the three aforementioned preservation indicators listed above, however, one should stand out in particular: the absence of parking lots in the space of buildings.  Mackinac has no parking lots because it doesn’t need them.  It has no cars.  The island’s government passed a law forbidding motorized vehicles as long ago as 1898, a time well before the motorized vehicle had become commonplace.  The law’s original aim was promote clean, noise-free air and to avoid startling the town’s horses; subsequent leadership has maintained the law ever since, with few exceptions for snowmobiles, shipment trucks, and emergency vehicles.  But no residents or entrepreneurs on the island can own a car.

The absence of cars on Mackinac translates to a modified system of rules for human settlement, which manifests itself in the look of the town.
Not surprisingly, roads don’t need to be particularly wide to accommodate on-street parking, and parking lots are unheard of.  The town itself doesn’t look particularly unconventional in terms of the positioning of structures—instead, it looks almost hyperconventional, an unsullied facsimile of Main Street Americana.
Even outside of the most urbanized parts of the island, a dense network of paths crisscrosses through the woods and the hills, almost exclusively intended for horses and bicyclists.
And the perimeter of the island features a complete multi-use path, which many of the beachfront homes depend upon for access.
And, of course, the inordinate cluster of bikes parked together.
One might easily confuse such a vista for Copenhagen or Amsterdam, but in this case the bikes are almost uniformly in good condition—no need to grime them up to deter thieves.  And the proof is the fact that virtually none of them are locked or secured.

If it all seems impossibly idyllic, it’s likely that you formed the same conclusions that I had, at least until I set foot on the island.  I’ll concede that I was expecting a bohemian enclave, with provocative murals on the sides of buildings, purveyors of hemp products, unwashed street musicians, and vegan pastry shops.  And if that guess was way off base (and it was), at the very least I was anticipating something a little bourgeois-bohemian—a resort town for affluent urbanites, filled with expensive pet salons, micro-brewpubs, Asian tapas, or wine bars.  Strike two.  Maybe these were bad assumptions on my part, to think such a settlement would thrive in such a remote village.  But such communities do exist: Vermont is filled with hippie hamlets like my first description, and Michigan can claim more than its share of ritzy waterfront towns that attract weekenders from Chicago and Detroit (Petoskey, MI is the first that comes to mind).

But Mackinac Island is neither of these.
The most famous comestible for sale along Main Street is fudge, offered from a variety of vendors.  Other shops display different flavors of hot pretzels, Native American-inspired crafts, family dining, soda fountains.  And so forth.  Superficial as it may seem for me to define the character of a community through its retail, it is a judgment call we all make in our assessments of unfamiliar urbanized places.  And what it indicates is that Mackinac Island is, for the most part, a slice of Middle America.  Nary a whiff of counterculture.  I guess it got the bourgeois part right.

Was I na├»ve in expecting Mackinac to appeal to society’s fringe?  Probably.  But since the island’s most enduring claim to fame is its century-old ban on automobiles—in the state that serves as the cradle of the automotive industry, no less!—it’s understandable to expect the community to push its anti-establishmentarianism to greater extremes.  But, as far as I can tell, it really doesn’t.  Instead, we get chubby Midwesterners on bicycles.
In many ways, this is a greater marvel than if Mackinac were filled with hippies, or hipsters, or Luddite militias.  The fact remains that banning cars is unorthodox just about anywhere in the world, and such a gesture could have easily scared away the peak of society’s bell curve.  After all, most people crave convenience on their vacations, and yet here is a community that outlaws one of the most quintessential American creature comforts.  And middle class families flock here anyway.  And while some opt for the horse-drawn shuttles to view the town, many more rent bikes.

I’m probably being a bit unfair to Middle America in my astonishment—and more than a little patronizing.  But, in many regards, Mackinac is wonderful because it’s so normal. It aggregates a population that, though not necessarily averse to bike-riding, is certainly unlikely treat it as a utilitarian means of getting around—and these vacationers are even less likely to take a hardline stance toward bicycle advocacy, the way the fringe groups do.  They’re recreational bicyclists back home (if they use bikes at all), but on Mackinac, getting around by bike is both utilitarian and recreational.  No militancy to be found.  Yet Mackinac is militant about its ban on motorized vehicles.  The accomplishment of Mackinac Island vaguely resembles the achievement of the Indianapolis Cultural Trail—a shared use path through the Circle City’s downtown, less interesting for attracting hipsters (we knew they’d use it) than it is for luring Mom and Dad and the kids from the suburbs.  It effectively democratized bicycle riding by making it much less intimidating.  I suppose Indy’s achievement is greater than Mackinac’s, since it’s easy not to be afraid of biking the streets of a small town when the streets have no cars.  (Indy obviously still has more than its share of vehicles on the roads.)  But the implementation of this Mackinac law and its unlikely pairing with mainstream culture still makes the island more of a peculiarity.

Mackinac’s ability to perpetuate this ban ad infinitum may depend on a few other embedded advantages the town has over other enclaves.  First of all, the community is really only bustling five months of the year at most; otherwise, population plunges to below 500 people.  Bike-dependency is unlikely to demonstrate such widespread appeal during northern Michigan’s long and unforgiving winters.  Secondly, its island status means it discriminates who wants to arrive there, as well as who can arrive.  Passers-by just don’t stumble onto the community.  By paying for a ferry, visitors have already largely bought into the way of life while they’re there.  And the geography fosters a sense of comfort impossible to replicate if it were part of the mainland.  Even if crime does occur, it’s clear from the absence of bike locks that no one perceives it to be a problem. It’s hard to steal bikes too far on a 4 square mile island in which 99% of the people arrive by ferry.  (Though I guess people could take bikes on the ferry and claim they belong to them?)

If I were more of a cynic, I could see these two advantages (the isolation and the seasonality) as inextricable with Mackinac’s biggest cultural drawback: people like it precisely because it’s an escapist novelty, meaning that all but the few hundred year-round residents are perfectly happy to return to the comfortable, auto-dependent suburbs of Detroit on Sunday evening.  The characteristics that make Mackinaw distinctive also preclude its replicability anywhere else.  But since I don’t think the abolition of cars makes for pragmatic policy in most of the country (at least not in jurisdictions much bigger than this town), I resign myself to appreciate the island’s broadly accessible charms on their own terms.  Mackinac is just fine without the car-hating counter-revolutionaries.  At least everybody has a good way to burn the calories from all that fudge.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Plugging the passed-over pocket park with programming.

My latest post is up at Urban Indy.  It scrutinizes a small park on the near northside of Indianapolis--a park so unremarkable that most of the city's residents have probably never heard of it.  Wedged between the Fall Creek Place neighborhood and its namesake Fall Creek, Kessler Park is hardly an unattractive park.  Clean, easily accessible, generously landscaped, and boasting part of a creekside greenway trail, the park has everything an urban park needs...except people.

It's empty nearly 100% of the time.  What seems to be the problem?  The surrounding neighborhood is, at least by Indianapolis standards, relatively high density and pedestrian friendly.  But, at the same time, the neighborhood is not so crowded that the houses lack private yards.  Meanwhile the nearby Ivy Tech Community College campus brings students to the area, but it's overwhelmingly a commuter school, so the numerous daily visitors don't translate to much pedestrian traffic.  And this park--named after George Kessler, the designer of the city's park system--remains ignored.

What could the park's designers--or Indianapolis Parks and Recreation, for that matter--have done to make Kessler Park succeed?  Obviously it hasn't yet found the competitive edge that could make it at least something better than an oversight.  The designers seem to have thought that the park could become desirable on its own terms, so they didn't integrate any sort of programming or specific use into the site plan.  We see the results.

A counterpart in every sense of the word is Campus Martius Park in Detroit.  It might seem like an odd analogy, since this park sits in the heart of the Motor City's downtown, compared with Kessler's tucked-away spot along a residential street.   But Campus Martius does enjoy some obvious advantages; for starters, it's among the most lively civic spaces in this beleaguered city.
The park, re-established several years ago on what had previous been a sterile and unnecessary traffic circle, has a little bit of everything: a fountain centerpiece, a war memorial, the Fountain Bistro restaurant, a lawn with chairs for viewing concerts, the stage to host those concerts, and even a beach and a cabana bar.  Even when downtown Detroit is devoid of a good crowd (which can happen on any given weekday after 6 pm, unless a Tigers Game is taking place) Campus Martius park is still generally humming.  But could all that programming be a little overkill?

The goal of the article is to scrutinize the idea of programming our urban open spaces with destination-type venues, in order to lure the public.  Although this technique seems to be working at Campus Martius, such intensive cramming of activities into little more than an acre robs the space of its spontaneity.  People aren't enjoying the space on its own terms; they're responding to the many sales pitches it has to offer.

Ultimately, the programmed park reaches unprecedented extremes in they city of Yerevan.  This Armenian capitol took its circular beltway--designed as part of the master planned downtown during the early Soviet era--and has sold off the majority of the land to cafes and restaurants.
Most of Yerevan's parkland is completely commercialized, to the point of compromising its accessibility.   Bicyclists, for example, must find another outlet, since the extensive Circular Park is overwhelmed by vendors and small businesses that crowd the pathway.  It almost looks like an amusement mark. 

Where does this leave Kessler Park in Indy?  Obviously the current, unprogrammed condition isn't working, but it should avoid the opposite extreme from Detroit and Yerevan as well.  Truly visionary landscape architects recognize that a great urban park doesn't simply offer restaurants, pseudobeaches and other novelties--they should reveal sensitivity both to the landscape and the green space demands of the surrounding community.  In short, exactly the sort of park designed by George Kessler and his contemporaries.

The full article at Urban Indy provides far greater description and numerous photos of all three city parks.  As always, comments are welcome, both here and on the Urban Indy site.