Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Anatomy of a Tent City

Since the completion of Boston's Rose Kennedy Greenway, it has been criticized for being under utilized. Now, the message from the city seems to be the opposite as police try to curtail the spread of Occupy Boston's "tent city". They have set up camp in Dewey Square, the southern end of the greenway and the hub of Boston's Financial District. Across the street are the Federal Reserve Building, One Financial Center and South Station. Its location amidst route 93's on/off ramps, Summer Street and the Fitzgerald Expressway ensures both autonomy as well as maximum visibility.

Within the boundaries of a police barrier, concrete walls and sidewalk curbs, the tent city has become a small city state. There is designated public space both for tent access and public gathering. There are general assembly meetings in which the residents discuss matters and make decisions by consensus. There are organized events, protests and even a lecture series.

There are a number of community tents that fulfill certain functions. Each one is located where it will serve the people best and has volunteers that operate it. The Media Tent offers power and wifi to residents and is located next to the main public space. The Food Tent gathers and cooks food. This is in the middle of the camp to be accessible primarily to full timers. The Sign Tent is an art station with an assortment of markers, tape, paper and cardboard for fashioning one's own signs. While all the other tents open towards the interior of tent city, the sign tent opens onto the sidewalk on Fitzgerald Expressway. This is the picketing area for most of the protestors. At the head of the tent city is a massive windowless building. It is, in fact, a vent building for the tunnel below. However, it reminded me of the Casa del Fascio from the blank facade, horizontal strips of text and a crowd of people gathered at its base. A slight rise and a concrete slab at the base of the building act as the perfect stage for rallies, lectures and protests.

When I arrived around noon, the only people present were the full time protesters. As I walked through the break in the police barriers that was the entrance, I couldn't help but feel as if I were walking into a medieval castle in the midst of a siege. There were at dozens of tents squeezed onto the now muddy lawn. On a raised platform at the base of the vent building, there was a young man giving a speech on the tectonics of police resistant barriers. Others were discussing tactics to deter police detention using a pair of handcuffs as demonstration. This, however, is only one of the many faces of the movement and as the afternoon wore on tent city saw various waves of supporters and onlookers come through. Union groups would take their turn on stage garnering crowds. University Professors would also lecture about the systemic problems of the current system of capitalism. Each wave was unannounced but seemed expected and choreographed.

Social media, no doubt, is behind the persistence of the flash mob like events which happen throughout the afternoon. The website, Facebook page and tweets are the strings behind the ongoing show, but also their own show in themselves. The media tent, located next to the main stage, ensures all activity on the ground gains some sort of web presence, while also ensuring sentiments expressed on the web culminate in some activity on ground. This self perpetuating system only shows signs of growing as media coverage results in more visitors and therefore even more media coverage.

The culmination for the day was the Verizon march. A procession of Verizon workers, union workers, war veterans and the generally unemployed lined up in front of the main stage. There were a series of speakers, some planned, others which were not but still welcomed. One man with a megaphone, who was leading the rally, led the march out of tent city to the paved area at the edge of Dewey Square where he gave another speech as more people gathered. At 5 pm the crowd left the square and, with a Police escort, marched on the Verizon store several blocks away. The march brought us through Downtown Crossing to the Washington Street storefront. The spectacle was clearly constructed as a message to Verizon using media coverage as the messenger. After some chants and speeches, we all headed back to the tent city where the rally merged once again with the activity there.

When it comes to mapping the square, I've realized that that rather than mapping it myself, the occupiers are the ones who should be mapping it. The space itself is the convergence and construction of multiple constituencies. The map should reflect this by being open to all for editing. All they need is the basic framework. A large sheet of plywood with the basic plan of Dewey Square and perhaps a key denoting the types of lines and symbols to be used. It would be integrated into the main wall of the vent building with other signs and the schedule so its visible and available to everyone. Beyond that they have all the tools to map it themselves in the sign tent. I could start out the map by drawing on the current boundary lines and location of community tents. The rest would be up to the protesters. It could be used to monitor boundaries, police presence, infrastructure problems and potential areas of growth. It would be part of the meetings where residents discuss defending the space against police. Each tent could fashion its own symbol to signify its presence within the tent city. Lots of tent city's residents are also in need of clothing, tarps and tent platforms to keep dry. The map could be a message board and locater for the delivery of aid. It would also be a form of community expression. Streets would be ironically self titled and, perhaps, even surrounding buildings mocked. It would be both a utility and another form of expression. Importantly, it would be flexible enough to change with the constantly evolving occupation of the square.

What would be even better is if the map itself was placed in front of a webcam that could read the various symbols through a tracking program and create a real time, reformatted duplicate in the form of an app. Anyone could monitor the status of the tent city from their own phone, tablet or computer. Protestors, onlookers and even police could use the map for their own purposes.

Or perhaps, all they need is a webcam peering down on the square from the office building above. I could sneak into the same conference room where I took the bird's eye photo and install a webcam disguised as an architectural feature like a mullion or thermostat.

Inspired by the militaristic nature of the "tent city state," I also thought that Dewey Square could be a game board where police and protestors are represented as clashing game pieces.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Exploring Red Hook's Grain Elevator

Largely unchanged since 1922, The New York State Barge Canal Grain Elevator has been a static fixture on the skyline of Red Hook's dynamic timeline. The 54 concrete bins have witnessed the rise and fall of numerous industries, the host of changes associated with Robert Moses, including the construction of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, the recreational area and housing projects, and most recently, waterfront development like Ikea. The fact that it has remained untouched is, perhaps, testament to its robust, if not shortsighted, engineering. Originally constructed to help invigorate the New York State Barge Canal, it was obsolete before it was even completed. A combination of competing shipyards in New Jersey, the opening of the Saint Lawrence Seaway and finally containerization prevented the structure from ever being more than a quarter full. Because of this, It was dubbed the "Magnificent Mistake."

Since closure in 1965, the vacant building has been a mecca for the burgeoning sport of urban exploration. Attracted to the austerity of the structure, urban explorers have used it as an object for recreation and photography. Images of the building have gone near viral in virtual circles of urban exploration. This prompted me to check it out for myself.

While I initially questioned the legality of entering the site, a lack of "no trespassing" signs was reassuring as to the relaxed attitude taken by the owners, the Port of New York and New Jersey Authority. There were obstacles however. The first was a twelve foot concrete wall which surrounds the entire complex. After scaling the wall unnecessarily, I noticed convenient gap at the waters edge allowing easy access into the site. The second, is a metal barrier blocking entrance to the interior of the building (pictured above). Fortunately, urban explorers have welded a handle on the underside to avoid having to wade through the water below.

From the ground floor, a stair tower scales the outside of the grain bins. The stair tower is attached to the porous marine towers which extracted grain from barges at the end of their journey on the barge canal.

120 feet off the ground is the gallery. This space distributed grain into the numerous bins. Much of the old machinery has been stripped leaving the space largely empty.

Remarkably, the only indication of the existence of the large grain bins was a subtle breeze rising from small holes in the gallery floor. A camera flash, however, exposed the scale of these spaces.

The cupolas above the gallery offer the best views of the surrounding landscape. The image above shows the recreational area, the housing projects, BQE and then downtown Manhattan beyond.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Hipsters on Water: The Underground Boating Culture of Newtown Creek

While I was in New York documenting my thesis site, the offhand decision to jump a fence led to a boat hopping voyage down the Newtown Creek and into the bowels of Brooklyn's underground boating culture. The following is that story...

Peering beyond a fence and along the embankment at the mouth of the Newtown Creek, I noticed a number of sailboats moored at the waters edge. While the view from this real estate alone suggests luxury, these were no pleasure yachts. Upon further inspection, I noticed the ad hoc array of solar panels and woodsmoke wafting softly from flues punched through the cabin roofs. A tangle of mooring lines reached out from the boats and wrapped around trees, rocks or fence posts. These boats looked to be permanent residences for their crew opportunistically mooring on the banks of neglected industrial land.

Considering the cold, it was odd that the deck of boat was busy with a flurry of activity. After suppressing my inhibitions, I hopped the fence and struck up a chat with the people on board. Turns out this boat was not usually moored here and was, in fact, not welcome by the locals. This was the S.S. Sapphire, a 48ft, home-built schooner on a voyage from Nova Scotia to its new home in British Columbia. The three sweater clad Canadians on board had apparently been confronted by the resident of the adjacent boat who threatened to untie the Sapphire to drift into the East River. Taking no chances, the Captain, who's name I forget, his partner, Twyla, and the crew member, Hyden, were headed up river to find safer mooring. They offered to take me along and, naturally, I couldn't refuse.

From the cabin emerged a fourth person. Her accent gave her away as an Aussie rather than Canadian. Her name was Martina, a holographic artist living on another boat in Brooklyn. Come to find out, thats where we were headed.

We didn't get very far, however. A hundred yards up river the Pulaski Bridge crossed over head just a little too close for comfort considering the height of the masts. The draw bridges along the Newtown are so seldom used that there are no dedicated staff to operate them. We waited several hours for Martina to arrange openings with the maintenance staff for the Pulaski bridge and two others that separated us from her boat. That time gave me the opportunity to get acquainted with my surrounding and the people on board. Hot coffee, the wood stove, a dog named Bella and a million dollar view of Manhattan also helped pass the time.

Winding through the Newtown was much of what you'd expect. Trash barges, warehouses and the chrome digester silos of the wastewater treatment plant lined the shore. The striking scale of everything was, of course, appropriate given the skyline of Manhattan beyond. The surprise came when we motored into a cove in English Kills, at the termination of the river. Nestled among some rogue clusters of trees was a rather large ferry boat, rusting from years of apparent disuse. This boat, however, was home to Martina and approximately 10 other young professionals and artists. While the others were securing the Sapphire to the ferry, I parked my bike alongside a dozen others and gave myself a tour.

The decks were scattered with junk, building materials and broken furniture. The top deck, however, boasted an out of ground swimming pool which was built right on the deck with propane tanks used to heat it for special occasions. Martina eventually led us to the bow where the old cafe served as the kitchen and dining room. Christmas lights, potted plants, a wood stove and couches gave a domestic feel to the otherwise utilitarian space. There was also a wood/machine shop downstairs and the sleeping quarters were scattered about the ship. Martina mentioned that the intention was to fix the boat up and turn it into the vessel of a not-for-profit group which could motor around New York harbor acting as some sort of humanitarian, educational or cultural venue. This reuse of a boat is perhaps, not inspired by planners' recent interest in New York's waterfront, but certainly parallels it and draws from similar sentiments.

Guests on board led to a search for dinner. There happened to be a turkey on board, which with potatoes, cactus and some of my New Hampshire beef jerky made a meal for the dozen people that were around. Whiskey and wine kept the party going until about 1am when I realized I had to bike back to my cousin's apartment in Astoria. The gangplank led to a tight alley which emptied into the parking lot of an industrial area and eventually a street. Thanks to the extensive bike path network I made it back to Queens with relative ease.

When looking back at my thesis project, I see this informal culture which exists in Greenpoint and Williamsburg as setting an important attitude in my project. The current development along the Williamsburg water front is the antithesis of what I found as the current character of the area. The sterility of the glass high rises is in stark contrast with the surround fabric and the activities which go on there. Perhaps these houseboating pioneers are a harbinger of whats to come as these industrial areas are rezoned and turned into housing. The hipster culture that exists here is may need to make way for marinas and yachts which push the informal boating community out. However, the beauty of living on a boat is that you can always set sail and find another backwater spot.