Musings on travel and terrorism

Summer is the time for vacations. For academics, especially those of us in language, cultural and area studies, it’s a time to reconnect with our objects of study. For me, that means Germany, most specifically Berlin. I’ve lived there multiple times since 1990, that tumultuous year when East and West Berlin started relearning how to be one city.

Berlin always feels unfinished, an attribute that even art historian Karl Scheffler noted back in 1910. It’s that edginess, that constant change, the unexpected surprise around the corner. I feel at home in Berlin, which is an odd statement, since every time I visit, I first have to reorient myself, for given its transitional nature, there is always some kind of change since my last visit. Since I spend the majority of my time in the historic center, still being (re)constructed, this is no surprise.

But there are also parts of Berlin that have undergone fewer changes in the last decades. Here I think of the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedaechtniskirche (Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church) and the Breitscheidplatz, the public space that was rocked by terror last December, when a truck plowed into pedestrians enjoying the Christmas market there. How will this space have changed? How are such acts of terrorism changing public spaces in London, Nice, Paris, Brussels…..? And how do the consequences of these acts affect our relationship to these spaces?

For now, I don’t have any answers. Stay tuned, for my next installment in July….from Berlin!

Works cited:

Scheffler, Karl. 1910. Berlin. Ein Stadtschicksal. 2nd ed. Berlin: Erich Reiss Verlag.

Thoughts on “Urban Planning: Art and the City 1967 – 2017,” an exhibit at CAM STL

In one scene a pair of female dancers, one black and one white, stand sideways ready to begin choreography. Costumes—black shorts and sleeveless black tops—suggest this piece as hip and abstract. As they begin to dance, so does the position of each of their arms, angular in front and bent at the elbow as if to engage in a sort of cooperative, artistic combat. As the dancers continue, they often twin their iterative movements in both angular and lyrical motions, with encircled arms and bent knees and twisted torsos, positions in tension with how their legs often stay planted in a stationary place.

Image from Liquor Store Theatre

What distinguishes this choreography are not just these movements but also the location. Staged in front a liquor store in Detroit, MI, this dance is from Liquor Store Theatre. Conceived of by Detroit native Maya Stovall (who performs in much of the choreography) Liquor Store Theatre, is according to her website, “a four-volume, thirty-plus episode meditation on city life in Detroit … a four-years-running series of documented performances and conversations with people in the streets, sidewalks, and parking lots surrounding Detroit liquor stores.” The work includes both video of the choreography (set to atmospheric, rhythmic music) and videos of interviews with residents inside or in front of the liquor store. Some residents talk about changes in Detroit: tearing down abandoned residential buildings and development to existing abandoned commercial structures. When I watched the video, one interviewee, a young black man, talked about how tourists often likely mis-perceive him and his friends as up to no good when they are in fact just hanging out and spending time together.

I learned of Liquor Store Theatre at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis as part of the museum’s “Urban Planning: Art and the City 1967-2017” a group exhibition with work by 24 artists; the exhibit opened earlier this month and runs through August 13, 2017. This past weekend I visited, watched Liquor Store Theatre, and engaged with the exhibition’s other works. (Earlier in May, the museum hosted Critical Spatial Practice St. Louis (CSPSTL). I attended “Performance and the City,” a panel with Maya Stovall, other exhibition artists Abigale Deville and David Hartt, and the curator Kelly Shindler.)

Literature for the exhibit thematizes much of the work as either “photography as a tool to document a rapidly changing nation,” sculpture, or “several moving image works.” In my interaction, I thought of three more takeaways.

First, although other cities are referenced, most works consider one of three cities: New York, Detroit, or St. Louis. It is useful to pause and ask why the focus on these three cities, especially in the last 40 years? Planning and development in New York City—from the 1916 Zoning Resolution, to the late 20th century and early 21st century loft laws that legalized illegal occupation of artists in commericial buildings, to the 2005 Greenpoint-Williamsburg Land Use and Waterfront Plan that transformed the neighborhoods’ skyline and displaced many residents with market-rate high rise buildings and scant affordable housing options—not only changed the function of buildings and skyline in the city, but also set rubrics for other local and national conversations and policies on density, zoning, gentrification, displacement, and “renewal,” and the racial impact of these urban planning efforts.

I particularly thought about zoning and race in Glenn Ligon’s Housing in New York (2007), which curator Shindler describes as “expos[ing] gentrification as an assault on African-American neighborhoods.” In the series of five silkscreens, Ligon narrates the story of each place he has lived throughout his life all in New York City. Ligon’s story is one of growing up in housing projects in the Bronx; living in brownstones with no-heat and flooded ceilings in Brooklyn and Manhattan; and later, as he became a more established artist, living in converted lofts in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Glenn Ligon, Housing in New York (2007)

Ligon, Housing in New York (2007), Frame 1

Ligon, Housing in New York (2007), Frame 2

Ligon, Housing in New York (2007), Frame 3

Ligon, Housing in New York (2007), Frame 4

Ligon, Housing in New York, Frame 5

As of 2010 New York City had a population of more than 8 million that was about 25% black (with Harlem no longer majority black); St. Louis City had a population of 319,000 that was about 49% black; and Detroit had a population of 713,000 that was about 82% black. Detroit and St. Louis are also the cities with the two largest shrinking populations (2015 estimates situate the population of St. Louis at 315,000 and of Detroit at 677,000).

But some art revealed the sociality and life beyond this “decline” and beyond how black urban areas are often demarcated in policy and discourse as in ruin. There was a through line of liquor and inebriation in much of the art, such as Martha Rosler’s The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems, 1974-75.

Closeup of Martha Rosler’s The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems, 1974-75

But other works revealed a rich sociality to where alcohol gets bought and consumed as a way to tell the story of those often ignored by urban planners. In Maya Stovall’s Liquor Store Theatre, for example, the commercial place to buy liquor becomes a backdrop for residents–mostly black–to tell stories about their home.

Second, some works articulated the role of the rural in the making of the urban. Images from Juan William Chávez‘s Pruitt-Igoe Bee Sanctuary (2010) situated an imaginary of turning the land in the Pruitt-Igoe forest in St. Louis City into a bee sanctuary.

Images from Juan William Chávez’s Pruitt-Igoe Bee Sanctuary (2010 and 2011)

In Agnes Denes’s Wheatfield–A Confrontation, the artist documents the wheatfield she and others planted at the Battery Park landfill in May 1982; in August 1982 she and others harvested more than 1000 pounds of wheat delivered to 28 cities. As Denes wrote in her artist statement: “Planting and harvesting a field of wheat on land worth $4.5 billion created a powerful paradox. Wheatfield was a symbol, a universal concept; it represented food, energy, commerce, world trade, and economics. It referred to mismanagement, waste, world hunger and ecological concerns. It called attention to our misplaced priorities.”

Agnes Denes, Wheatfield–A Confrontation (1982)

Third, the exhibition particularized attention to art about urban space and planning, rather than art (such as public sculpture) that exists within urban space. There is much overlap between the two categories and the exhibit attuned to how art about urban space often focuses on urban aesthetics and imaginaries. Mark Bradford’s Untitled (2012) “create[d]” according to the curator “ghostly etchings, a palimpsest of merchant posters sourced around Los Angeles that refract the area’s crucial informal economies.” Note how his articulation situates the sparse and novice-esque aesthetics of the block letters alongside messages of “Homeless Prevention Program” and “We Buy Houses Cash.”

Closeup on Mark Bradford’s Untitled (2012)

Another closeup on Mark Bradford’s Untitled (2012)

Ultimately and collectively the works in this exhibit re-orient how we might study, document, and analyze urban space by situating the aesthetics, narratives, and sociality of, and imaginations for, the city.

Urban Planning: Art and the City 1967-2017” runs at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis until August 13, 2017.

Building Cycling Infrastructure in Cities

An increasingly important focus in cities around the world is how to improve quality of life in terms of sustainable travel and associated health benefits. Cycling is a big part of these endeavours. Much has been written on the different ways to improve cycling and increase the uptake in cyclists. For example, there are a number of different ‘schools’ to follow (Danish, Dutch, or somewhere in between). But, there are many issues for getting different groups interested in cycling and for developing cycling in cities where cycling is either a low priority or little prevalence.

The first is an issue in big diverse cities with populations from all corners of the globe. For women, ethnic minority groups, and children cycling can be perceived to be dangerous and the city unwelcoming for the practice. Colleagues at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine have examined such issues with regards to encouraging a wider uptake in cycling for short trips or commuting within under-represented groups (Steinbeck et al, 2011). This is a complex problem that involves many different things from learning new skills, cultural norms, costs, and perceptions of what cycling involves.

The second is a problem that is associated with how to integrate new or sustainable infrastructure in cities that are envisioned as the preserve of the private motor vehicle. Ageing infrastructure is a growing problem in most cities. The case for infrastructure maintenance and renovation is a key theme in Amin and Thrift’s recently published “Seeing Like a City” (2017). But, there are many problems when it comes to actually trying to build new infrastructure like cycling paths where one doesn’t already exist. In Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria is a prime example of a city with low but growing cycling rates and cycling infrastructure that is best described as patchy (with good and bad elements – Barnfield and Plyushteva, 2016). Recently the municipal authorities have outlined ambitious plans to include a cycle path in the renovations of Dondukov Boulevard in central Sofia (the road surface requires repairing and the renovations will include a cycle path).

The photo below shows the current situation, with sparse current cycling facilities. The addition of a cycle path will be a big change: materially, spatially, and culturally. In the plans set out by the municipality in their cycling programme 2016-2019 (Програмата за развитие на велосипедния транспорт на територията на Столична община за периода 2016 – 2019) the exact finalised provision hasn’t been settled. Local advocacy groups are concerned by the lack of detail with work due to commence in June 2016. The decision whether to include two one-way cycle paths or a two-way single path is still unresolved (See the images below on the visualisation of one of the potential options). The challenges faced by Sofia and other cities in the region on how to integrate sustainable travel within existing and new infrastructure will be part of efforts to shape urban space and cultures for many years to come.

 

 

 

Amin, A., & Thrift, N. (2017). Seeing like a city. John Wiley & Sons.

Barnfield, A., & Plyushteva, A. (2016). Cycling in the post-socialist city: On travelling by bicycle in Sofia, Bulgaria. Urban Studies53(9), 1822-1835.

Steinbach, R., Green, J., Datta, J., & Edwards, P. (2011). Cycling and the city: a case study of how gendered, ethnic and class identities can shape healthy transport choices. Social Science & Medicine72(7), 1123-1130.

‘Angels’, and the myth of the ‘New South’

Jason Luger

ANGELS-jumbo

 

Figure 1: Still from Broadway revival of ‘Angels in America’, 2017.

Fallen Angels in the Queen City 

Twenty – one years ago, the Charlotte Repertory Theater staged Tony Kushner’s award-winning play, ‘Angels in America: a Gay Fantasia on National Themes’. Known as the ‘Queen City’, Charlotte was named for King George III’s German wife, Charlotte Sophia of Mecklenburg -Strelitz: her buxom statue greets travelers as they arrive at Douglas International Airport. This fact is not lost on area drag queens.

Charlotte, then just emerging as a major national banking and transportation center, gained international headlines when ‘Angels’ – which is about AIDS, politics and gay life in 1980s New York – was forcibly closed after the city cut funding to the Repertory Theater. There had been an angry backlash from the city’s influential evangelical community (including local celebrity the Reverend Billy Graham) about the show’s themes – in particular, the fact that city funding was supporting a play focusing on the homosexual experience. Charlotte, ever conscious of its reputation vis ‘the New South’ and imbued with the civic boosterism so common in Southeast boomtowns, found itself engulfed in a cultural war which pitted cosmopolitans against hometown Bible Belt values. As seen in the Economist (below), and the New York Times (‘Play Displays a Growing City’s Cultural Tensions’, 22 March 1996), Charlotte’s episode became a national conversation about the arts, the public, and the city. The play had, by this time, opened and toured in a number of cities across the country, but few had seen the type of controversy and feverish public discourse that Charlotte witnessed (Nielsen, 2008; Tepper, 2011).

economist

No gays, please, we’re Carolinian

 Apr 24th 1997 | CHARLOTTE

Home to Fortune-500 companies like NationsBank (now Bank of America) and Wachovia (now Wells Fargo), with a new NFL team (Panthers) and major hub airport (US Airways, now American Airlines), Charlotte’s ‘New South’ identity was suddenly paralyzed.

This would not be the city’s last cultural war, and it certainly wasn’t the first.

The ‘New South’ Myth 

Jim Crow

Figure 2: Life under Jim Crow in North Carolina (1940s).

If Atlanta was ‘the city too busy to hate’, as civic boosters claimed during the precarious years of desegregation, Charlotte (in some ways, Atlanta’s little sister), was the city where making deals trumped everything. Born out of textile looms and convenient road and rail intersections, Charlotte had established itself by the mid – 20th century as the Carolina’s largest metropolitan area and a growing financial center. Race relations, Charlotte leaders claimed, took a back seat to the city’s overall progress. In 1971, Charlotte became a national test-case for mandatory busing to desegregate public schools as a result of the landmark case ‘Swann vs the Mecklenburg Board of Education’, which upheld busing as a Constitutional, and indeed necessary, antidote to the legacy of Jim Crow.

In the 1980s, Harvey Gantt, an African-American businessman, became mayor, and Charlotte was seen as a model of desegregation compared to other Southern peers, with a meritocratic leadership structure and democratic civil society. By the 1990s, Charlotte was shaking off the dust of its humble, pious, yeoman Scotch-Irish origins. A flood of newcomers to the region – many from the Midwest and Northeast – had changed the demographics considerably: Charlotteans were just as likely to be from Pittsburgh or Cleveland as they were from the rural South. Embarrassing scandals had seen the downfall of televangelist celebrities like Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, and local business leaders like Hugh McColl – the CEO of NationsBank, and later Bank of America – had aspirations that went not heavenward, but with an eye to competing with major financial centers for talent and commercial prestige.

The arts, leaders like McColl believed, were crucial to this effort to attract talent and cement Charlotte’s reputation as a worthy home of some of the nation’s largest banks. NationsBank built a monumental new headquarters in 1992, at the time one of the tallest buildings in the country, and attached to the lobby was a new performing arts center.

charlotte

Figure 3: Charlotte city skyline, 2016.

But like the mythological financial instruments traded in these glassy, neo-gothic towers (such as the ‘Collateralized Debt Obligations’ that went ‘poof!’ in 2008-2009), the ‘New South’ shimmered / shimmers like a desert mirage, a Potemkin village, a fable. Just as ‘the South’ was a construction based on the necessity of racial and class subjugation, the ‘New South’ emerged as a necessary snake oil, a smoke and mirror act, to hasten the neoliberal remaking of the southern textile town and quickly sweep racial scars and ‘fire and brimstone’ tent revivals under the proverbial rug.

In 1996, the ‘Angels’ controversy erupted. By this time, scholars such as Kuklinski et al., (1997) had already begun to debunk the ‘New South’ myth and the fallacy of a post-racial Sunbelt. Indeed, it just so happened that many of the newcomers from other places reinforced, rather than challenged, extant southern racial attitudes and prejudices. After all, Henry Grady, the Atlantan who had coined the term ‘New South’ in 1890 – had not foreseen a region of class or race equity, but rather a resurgent South of industry and modernism. The birth of the New South, and its roads, textile mills and country clubs – coincided with a re-affirmation of white supremacy and the legislative encoding of racial apartheid (as seen in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896).

In 1997, a local white parent sued the county over the forced school busing, and won his case. In 2000, a Federal appeals court upheld the decision, and race-based busing ended. Charlotte schools began a rapid re-segregation.

In 2008, Wachovia went bankrupt, and was purchased in a fire sale by San Francisco-based Wells Fargo.

Then came the Bathroom controversy.

Bathrooms

Figure 4: National press for North Carolina’s House Bill 2 controversy, 2016.

The 2000s had been good to the ‘Queen City’. Bank mergers and financial services growth, along with the steady expansion of US Airways’ Charlotte hub, had propelled Charlotte into the top 20 American cities, with a metro population topping 2 million by 2010. Superbowl appearances by the Panthers had also helped with national, and international name recognition – culminating in the city’s hosting of the 2012 Democratic National Convention, widely lauded as a success. In 2014, Charlotte’s CAST theater group, based in the now-trendy ‘NoDa’ arts district – staged ‘Angels in America’, to positive critical reception and this time, no public outcry.

But the election of Barack Obama in 2008, combined with decades of neoliberal economic policy resulting in the 2008-2009 financial crash and great recession, had awakened all of the South’s skeletons from their (brief) slumber. The myth of the ‘New South’ came crashing down with the stock market. The ‘Tea Party’ was born, and made North Carolina one of its command centers, backed by fantastic policy and financial support from nationwide groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the billionaire Koch brothers.  In 2010, conservative republicans took control of North Carolina’s General Assembly, forming a veto-proof majority that effectively neutralized the Democrat Governor, Beverly Perdue. In 2012, former Charlotte mayor Pat McCrory, a republican, won the governorship. With all three branches of government under control (and significant reach into the courts as well), North Carolina’s general assembly went to work dis-assembling the fragile frame of the ‘New South’, the politically-moderate costume North Carolina had donned for a generation.

Issue after issue, North Carolina gained national headlines – strict ID rules for voters, with the effect of disenfranchising African-Americans and liberal college students; spending cuts to social programs, and perhaps most strikingly, a vicious attack on LGBTQ rights. In 2012, ‘Amendment One’ passed in a state referendum, making gay marriage a violation of state law (later repealed by a Supreme Court Decision). The ‘Moral Mondays’ protests at the General Assembly, led by local NAACP leader Rev. William Barber, gained international press.

Image:

General Assembly Police Lt. Martin Brock, right directs Rev. William Barber, President of the N.C. chapter of the NAACP to step down during “Moral Monday” demonstrations at the General Assembly in Raleigh, N.C., Monday, July 8, 2013. Nearly 700 people, led by the North Carolina Chapter of the NAACP, have been arrested over the past 10 weeks of the legislative session while protesting against policies being enacted by the North Carolina General Assembly. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Figure 5: Rev. William Barber at a ‘Moral Mondays’ Protest, North Carolina General Assembly, 2016.

Charlotte, the state’s largest city, again found itself front and center in the battle between cosmopolitan and conservative forces. The battlefield, as it turned out, wasn’t a play on gay themes this time, but the everyday life of transgender people. In 2016, the Charlotte City Council passed an ordinance that protected LGBTQ residents from discrimination and, notoriously, that mandated that both public and private businesses allow transgender persons to use the bathroom facility where they feel most comfortable. This was similar to non-discrimination ordinances passed in a number of other cities, including Columbia, South Carolina. And a firestorm was unleashed.

Fallen Angels, Redux 

20 years after Tony Kushner’s ‘Angels’ had fallen on the Queen City, the boomtown found its social fabric torn apart.

The city, with some of the South’s wealthiest zip codes, had become known for some of the lowest social mobility in the country, with huge gaps in social and economic indicators between white and non-white sections of town. Racial tension erupted into rioting in October 2016, when police officers killed an African-American man in Northeast Charlotte, one of the city’s poorest areas.

riots

Figure 6:Race  Riots in Charlotte, Oct. 2016

The riots exposed the myth of the ‘New South’ for what it was: a marketing ploy, and window dressing on long entrenched, deep structural problems that Charlotte – and many American cities face. These problems are especially stark in sprawling Southern cities like Charlotte where decades of re-segregation, poor public transit and uneven economic growth have resulted in a neoliberal cityscape in which quality of life has fallen for many even as affluence has increased for many others.

Meanwhile, another battle had erupted between the city of Charlotte’s (white) progressive community and the (white) state legislators, who in March 2016 passed House Bill 2 – known as ‘the Bathroom Bill’ – in the middle of the night, with no debate or public discussion. House Bill 2 (or HB2) rescinded Charlotte’s non-discrimination ordinance, and went much further: it banned any municipality from passing similar nondiscrimination ordinances, prevented cities and towns from increasing their minimum wage, and, most nefariously, mandated that transgender persons use the bathroom corresponding to the sex on their birth certificate. This was, far and away, the most draconian and far-reaching recent anti LGBTQ legislation in the country.

This blog post will not recount the specifics of the long back and forth between the General Assembly and the City, the business community, the NBA, Bank of America, the national and international press, and the efforts of the LGBTQ community or various civil rights organizations; the boycotts and travel bans; the nasty rhetoric and name calling and overall ugliness exposed in what sociologist Elijah Anderson (2011) might call a ‘tear’ in the precarious ‘cosmopolitan canopy of civility’ that was the illusion of a progressive North Carolina. Or the half-hearted (non) repeal of House Bill 2 that leaves many of its worst, and most discriminatory pieces intact and leaves LGBTQ North Carolinians without basic legal protections.

But I will conclude by suggesting that the ‘New South’, just like the ‘Old South’, just like ‘manifest destiny’ or John Winthrop’s ‘Shining City Upon the Hill’ – are conceptual rather than tangible; dreams rather than realities; phantoms rather than fact. As Faulkner himself mused, ‘the past is never dead. It’s not even past (1951).’ At the time of this writing, Confederate monuments are being taken down in cities from New Orleans to Richmond. What will rise in their place, or fall from the sky, is yet unknown.

***

References

Anderson, E. (2011) The Cosmopolitan canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life. New York:  WW Norton & Company.

Faulkner, W. (1951) Requiem for a Nun.

Grady, H.W. and Dyer, O. (1890) The New South. Atlanta: Robert Bonner’s Sons.

Kuklinski, J.H., Cobb, M.D. and Gilens, M. (1997) Racial attitudes and the” New South”. The Journal of Politics, 59(2), pp.323-349.

Nielsen, K. (2008) Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. New York; A&C Black.

Tepper, S.J. (2011) Not Here, Not Now, Not That!: Protest Over Art and Culture in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

The Economist, 24 April 1997, ‘No gays please: we’re Carolinian.’

The New York Times, 22 March 1996, ‘Play displays a growing city’s cultural tensions’. By Kevin Sack.

 

CFP/Conference — Black Geographies: Insurgent Knowledge, Spatial Poetics, and the Politics of Blackness

UPDATED 16 JUN 2017:

The date of the symposium has been moved up to October 11-13.

Black Geographies: Insurgent Knowledge, Spatial Poetics, and the Politics of Blackness

the date of the symposium has been moved up to October 11-13.A symposium hosted by the Geography Department at the
University of California, Berkeley
Organizers: Dr. Jovan Lewis, Dr. Sharad Chari, Camilla Hawthorne, Kaily Heitz
October 11-13, 2017, UC Berkeley
CFP Deadline: June 16, 2017

Black liberation movements around the world, from the streets of Oakland and Ferguson to the shores of southern Europe, have focused international conversations among activists, academics, and artists on the importance of blackness to the geographical imagination. Importantly, this dialogue has elucidated the possibilities of blackness not only as a tool for understanding whiteness, non-being, and social/physical death, but also as a radical framework for envisioning liberation, social justice, and reconstruction. We invite our colleagues to Black Geographies to discuss the possibilities of interdisciplinary work oriented on black geographic thought. This symposium offers geography in general, and black geographies specifically, as capacious fields of inquiry that invite historical, political economic, sociological, and artistic perspectives–as well as a range of “established” and alternative methodologies.

The double valence of our use of “black geographies” refers both to the ways that geography can be used to understand the complex, overlapping spatialities of black life and the stretching of geographical knowledge that takes place when scholars consciously center questions of race and blackness. Katherine McKittrick’s important interventions, for instance, employ the concept of “poetics” to describe those landscapes and places that have been narratively and counter-conceptually created with blackness as their source.

More here.

Lees on Gentrification: ‘It’s Displacement’.

Professor Loretta Lees appeared on talk show ‘Renegade, Inc.’ to discuss the impacts of gentrification – which she defines as resulting in displacement against one’s will. And critiques the more recent turn toward ‘regeneration’ as a more palatable form of social cleansing. https://www.rt.com/shows/renegade-inc/387555-gentrification-alternative-socially-cleansed/