Fear the Fixie

In today’s New York Times an opinion piece entitled  Now Coveted — A Walkable, Convenient Place by Richard Leinburger discussed the increasing real estate prices in urban and semi-urban areas due to the rising interest of people to live in walkable and bikeable communities (along with access to other amenities). The author writes that “this trend is about both the revitalization of center cities and the urbanization of the suburbs.” This line of course caught my eye and immediately brought to mind David Harvey’s (1989) “urbanization of consciousness” and Lefebvre and the notion of the urban as being a cultural-conceptual experience, and not merely just a descriptor of physical space. It is an article that dovetails with an interest in bikes and bike culture that I have been thinking about lately.

Here in Madrid the increase in the number of cyclists that I see now compared a previous experience living here in 2004 is dramatic. And my first visit in 2001 need barely be mentioned since urban cycling in Madrid, much less in Granada was a whisper at that time, to say the least

Amongst the many type of cyclists and ‘cycles that catch my eye  is the hipster skateboard otherwise known as the fixie. (Disclosure: I like bikes and until unloading one prior to this previous move the personal count was at 4. )

A fixed-gear bike has no dérailleur and hence only one gear. The clean line of the chain running smoothly over the rear cog with no slack in the system to allow for the movement between gears has its mechanical and aesthetic advantages. It looks simple and tends to be simple to maintain. Oh, and it bears mentioning that these bikes have no freewheel either, so no coasting. To stop, proficient riders become adept at skidding by putting force onto the pedal nearest the rear wheel and often laying out the bike to achieve a ski-turn type arc to bleed speed and or stop. You can see an example here.

Originally descended from fixed-gear track bikes used for professional- and Olympic-level competition and brought (as I understand it) to the urban masses by bike messengers from San Francisco and New York, these bikes have become immensely popular with the urban-hipster crowd for their DIY aesthetic, a subdued and supposedly unpretentious sense of cool, and their green politics. Often these bikes–so the aesthetic suggests–were cobbled together by scavenging parts at the local bike co-op, the playing cards in the spokes earned while at local alley-cat races (competitions usually held at night in which competitors traverse the city on a scavenger hunt/race and end up at pleasant social event at the end), the bullhorn handlebars scavenged from drop handlebars and chopped and flipped. The bikes themselves are pastiche–a mixture of recycled parts, high-end rims, vintage frames. Often the bikes look simple and low-key but sport a set of color coordinated wheels that can run a couple hundred dollars a piece.Here is an ad for a brand of custom fixed gear bike (Bike Ad). The DIY aesthetic has fallen to the wayside for the retail fixie trend.

After meandering through these descriptions, readers may wonder, why spend time talking about a seemingly obscure bike fashion on a blog devoted to urban cultural studies?

Well, it is not obscure since it is not just in Williamsburg or Portland where this is taking place. The fixed-gear and its lowly cousin the non-fixed single-speed, have become symbols of urban progressive youth. There are, of course, other bikes out there that people ride, but it is the single cog aesthetic that one sees displayed in the window of the Vans store on the calle Montera next to Gran Vía up the hill from the Puerta de Sol. As is always the case, the counter-culture has gone mainstream (think snowboarding fifteen years ago) and the Pabst-Blue Ribbon aesthetic of “fixie” hipster cool has begun to be subsumed into the urban machine. The surest sign that gentrification is on its way is the proliferation of the single-cog ride. And though I like fixed gear bikes for a variety of reasons and would rather see bikes be fashionable than SUVs, I can’t deny my creeping suspicion that we must fear the fixie for when it comes the lofts are sure to follow.

Capital, Time and the City audio remix

How would an audio remix (3’30”) featuring David Harvey incorporated into a yo la tengo song along with some Steve Reich, Radiolab and a history lecture-podcast on the 19th-century city sound?

[the video got pulled from youtube, but you can listen to the audio on my homepage; click on the music tab on the top menu–there are some other remixes there drawing from lectures by/about Spanish authors.]

Multipliciudades blog — (new link at right)

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For Spanish readers, you’ll want to check out the blog multipliciudades (now linked at right with others of interest), run by Álvaro Sevilla Buitrago of the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid (he also co-edits the journal Urban/Revista Urban). Here are the categories of posts he’s got going: Continue reading

Worth a Read: Andy Merrifield on Marxism and the City

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I read Andy Merrifield’s book Metromarxism  back in graduate school and found it a great primer for thinking about the city, space and capital–as he writes in the introduction:

“Thinking about the city from the standpoint of a Marxist, and about Marxism from the standpoint of an urbanist, is fraught with a lot of difficulties. For Marxist urbanists, this double movement runs the danger of tugging one in opposite directions or else having one fall between two stools. The present offering tries to reconcile these two political and intellectual imaginations.”(2002: 1)

The book consists of relatively short but (direct?)action-packed chapters on specific figures–there’s a great balance between large scale issues/other voices and specific information about the named subject: Ch1. Karl Marx, Ch2. Frederick Engels, Ch3. Walter Benjamin, Ch4. Henri Lefebvre, Ch5. Guy Debord, Ch6. Manuel Castells, Ch7. David Harvey, Ch8. Marshall Berman (what a great reading it would be for an Intro to Urban Studies course…). Plus, great writing style, brisk pace that doesn’t sacrifice depth. He’s also got a great book on Lefebvre alone (Henri Lefebvre: A Critical Introduction) and also Guy Debord (in the Critical Lives series with Reaktion Books–which I think I picked up in a used book store in Atlanta… no good used book stores in Charleston, as with many places I imagine). I still have to get a copy of Magical Marxism (above in gallery–if anyone’s read it share your thoughts…).

See also his work for The Nation, & his recent piece in the New Left Review is also worth a read (although a word of caution: I saw it advertised in the NYRB as part of a NLR spread as an essay on “indignado politics”–which it was–but it is more globally focused than a piece concentrating on Spain itself…), still, it’s…

Worth a Read

[Call for “Worth a Read” postings–Reading something interesting related to Urban Cultural Studies? Post about it here!! The more voices the merrier! see the “About” and “How to Post” pages]

The Spanish City: 2012 KFLC Book Round Table

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Just back from Lexington where I took part in the following session featuring 5+ scholars with recent books out on the Spanish City (both Madrid and Barcelona were represented). I have to say that what I enjoyed most was the discussion format–I had never taken part in nor seen a session like this before (sad to say now, looking back), each presenter shared a concise 5-8 minute talk about the contents and approach of their book, and then a lively discussion followed, relating to larger issues in the field (well, better said, relating to the fields of both Hispanic Studies and Cultural/Urban Geography). Not sure if I can (or want to) go back to the traditional paper format. I had always been skeptical of the discussion format as advertised in other conference venues, but done right, it is much more interesting and productive than traditional papers by far. Kudos to Susan Larson and Malcolm Compitello for a great session. Although some of the books below are pending publication (those by Mercer and Santiáñez should be out soon), links are available below as appropriate:

HISPANIC STUDIES SPECIAL SESSION 5: THEORIES AND CULTURAL POLITICS OF REPRESENTING SPANISH CITIES (New Student Center, 211)

Organized by: Susan Larson, U of Kentucky; Chaired by: Malcolm Compitello, U of Arizona

Speakers: Benjamin Fraser, C of Charleston; Nil Santiáñez, St. Louis U; Carlos Ramos, Wellesley C; Leigh Mercer, U of Washington; Nathan Richardson, Bowling Green State U 

This roundtable brings together scholars who have recently published monographs on the cultural politics of Madrid [and Barcelona]. Each book will be briefly presented, whereupon there will be an open discussion of the different theoretical and methodological possibilities as well as the challenges of researching the representation of urban space.

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What I took away from the session was the energy of a geographical paradigm shift in the humanities. Discussions centered around the relevance of the humanities to urban planning, the possibility of resistance to capital, pedagogical approaches, the future of digital humanities research (particularly the hypercities project mentioned previously on this blog) and the potential for collaborative work (by undergrads, grad students and faculty) across disciplines. Of course the obstacles that limit these sorts of changes were also discussed, but energy and time can make all the difference.

T-5 Days and Counting Until Barcelona Becomes a Patented Collective Brand

David Harvey in “The Art of Rent” outlines the importance of the selling of place in order to generate monopoly rents. No city has mastered this technique better than Barcelona. Since the 1992 Summer Olympics, Barcelona has successfully marketed itself as a modern, innovative, and cosmopolitan global city that offers tourists and investors design, culture, high-end products, and cutting-edge technology. Companies like Natura Bissé (cosmetics), Custo (clothing) and Damm (beer) have attached the name Barcelona to their products to help sell them. To protect the Barcelona Brand, the Barcelona City Council has decided to patent its good name. If the Spanish Office of Patents and Brands (la Oficina Española de Patentes y Marcas) rules in favor of the request on April 16, 2012, Barcelona will become the first metropolitan area in Spain to be granted a patent.

 To find out more, read Jaume Aroca’s article in La Vanguardia (in Spanish).

“Ways of being urban in Latin America”

For a brief intro of sorts to urbanculturalstudies and Latin American cities [in English, references to works in English translation as well as David Harvey, and Doreen Massey] see the article by Alejandra García Vargas (Department of Social Sciences and Humanities, Universidad de Jujuy, Argentina) and Patria Román Velázquez (Department of Sociology, City University, London) titled

Latin American Urban Cultural Studies: Unique Texts, Ordinary Cities

available online here.

[the post’s title is a phrase taken from the above essay]

David Harvey lecture archive: Reading Marx’s Capital

Urban scholar David Harvey has an online video course/archive discussing Marx’s Capital (lectures are available as audio files as well)–accompanying his own book A Companion to Marx’s Capital with Verso (which is a good read I’ve heard great things about his lectures themselves as well).

David Harvey is a Distinguished Professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY), Director ofThe Center for Place, Culture and Politics, and author of numerous books. He has been teaching Karl Marx’s Capital for over 40 years.