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Hadji Dimitar quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2016. Fuji X100 w/+1.4 lens converter. Click to enlarge.

Hadji Dimitar quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2016. Fuji X100 w/+1.4 lens converter. Click to enlarge.

Mondrian meets Dorian Gray: Patterns of neo-liberal disregard

The photos above and below not only capture the accidental Mondrian-like effect of relegation of the maintenance of building envelopes to individual tenants, they also reveal a Dorian-Gray’s-like picture of the inefficiencies of neo-liberalism and the cumulative effects of decades of rising economic inequality and shirking of collective investment in an important component of the infrastructure that enables and sustains us.

Thoughts on infrastructure in general and building exteriors in particularly:

Infrastructure has been a recurring theme throughout the twists and turns of my eclectic work-life: Subway transportation,* the third city water tunnel, and green infrastructure in my native New York; airports, harbors, and inter-modal transportation nodes in the Netherlands; telecommunications and “smart” workplaces in Western and Central Europe; monitoring of infrastructure projects in the broader European context; and the history of infrastructure in the lands of the former Ottoman Empire.

A broad view …

My view of infrastructure is a broad, social-democratic one; a take that does not limit infrastructure to the usual narrow scope of roads, bridges, tunnels, etc. but that zooms out to include educational processes and facilities, health care delivery systems, the urban natural environment, and public housing — in other words, all that is critical to human activity and survival and implementation of which is beyond the reach of individual users and the efficacy of for-profit “entrepreneurial” activity (i.e. the so-called “market”) and outside of simple models of enterprise-based accountancy.

Envelope as infrastructure …

Building exteriors are infrastructure. The upgrading and maintenance of the legacy built environment are not just matters of patch-work attempts to achieve  individual comfort and moderately lower energy bills.  Attention to building envelopes is crucial to effective energy conservation society-wide, the slowing of climate change, and the reducing of dependencies on profit- and politically-motivated energy producers.  As a side effect, it removes the visible stigmata of who can and cannot afford to insulate their dwellings.

Societal glue …

Across-the-board attention to building exteriors provides societal glue.  The inefficient patchwork of apartment by apartment insulation is a sign of societal failure and ideologically-motivated narrowing of the responsibilities of governments, communities, and even tenants’ councils. In Eastern Europe, it is a visible sign of the abandonment of “we” in accordance with the cynical dictum of Margaret Thatcher and her like that “… there is no society.”  Worldwide, we now foot the bill for such idiocy.

Hadji Dimitar quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2016. Fuji X100 w/-1.4 lens converter. Click to enlarge.

Hadji Dimitar quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2016. Fuji X100 w/-1.4 lens converter. Click to enlarge.

Success …

The mass construction of panel-block housing in the former Soviet bloc was a strategy for creating low-cost housing during the post-war period of massive migration to cities, constraints in housing stock, and minimal availability of resources.  The aesthetic merits of such housing might remain open to debate but among the the practical result in Sofia, for example, was that by the final years of the communist period more than 80% of the population was housed in dwellings to which they had clear title of ownership, a major achievement by any account.

And failure …

The design and implementation of panel-block buildings was achieved according to a short-sighted logic that has been unsustainable for decades.  On the positive side, the panel bloc approach cut costs through standardization and modular prefabrication.  On the negative side, however, it gave no attention to insulation, heat retention, or cooling through shading.  The period of mass construction of panel block housing in Sofia was congruent with a period of nuclear power and nominal charges for electricity consumption.  Thus, if rooms were cold, one simply plugged in a few electric convection heaters.  And, if enough heat was not retained, one simply turned up the heaters up another notch and run them longer.  As to improving insulation: One could always cover one’s single-glazed windows with sheets of newspaper.

A remedy unlikely to effect a cure …

I do not follow news from Bulgaria closely  but in a conversation last week I heard that one-by-one private insulation of individual apartments recently has been made illegal.  Also, it seems, there are now European-financed programs for the insulation and renovation of apartment building exteriors.  But, as always, there’s is a rub, things turn out not to be so simple.  To qualify for European-financing, buildings must first be organized as legal entities, this requiring the assent of each and every apartment title-holder.  Also, residents must contribute a portion of total costs. Not least, the organization of such requires good-will towards one’s neighbors and familiarity with the law, as well as a degree of experience with navigating official channels.  A single hold-out or contrarian can block the process.  Thus, available funds flow more readily to smaller buildings with fewer and more prosperous and educated residents, rather than to  higher-need towering apartment blocks with scores upon scores of apartments in the lower-income neighborhoods of the city.  For the moment, thus, it is uncertain whether the remedy is likely to effect a cure.

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Note:

* Specifically, subsidized, affordable subway fares as a means for ensuring work-forces and customers to the private sector, for maintaining well-trafficked streets, and drawing the city’s ethnically and economically diverse population out of their homes and into cultural institutions.  Coincidentally, a similar argument was recently advanced by infrastructure advocate and scholar Alex Marshall.  Marshall’s excellent book The Surprising Design of Market Economies contains a passage about the social nature of infrastructure that may (or may not) have had its origin in an approach to the definition infrastructure that I shared with him during a conversation at the Regional Plan Association in New York in 2010.

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Hadji Dimitar quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2016. Fuji X100 w/+1.4 lens converter. Click on image to enlarge.

Photographic footnote: The wrong tools for the job

On the basis of the photos above, absolutely nobody — me included! — would ever confuse me with the likes of, say, Andreas Gursky!  Indeed, the photos above were taken with the wrong tools in the wrong way and then processed in a manner no less inappropriate.  I’ll explain …

First, each of the photos was taken hand-held rather that tripod-mounted, a self-deceiving arrogance when working with strong verticals and horizontals and when confronted with a large two-dimensional object to be positioned parallel to the film- (or sensor-) plane.  Second, the photos were taken from ground-level with the camera pointed upwards rather than from a neighboring building at a height roughly to half the height of the subject.

The result? An amalgam of vertical and horizontal distortions (keystoning, pitch, yaw, etc.) beyond the reach of the correctional powers of image processing software, especially when working within the small confines of a laptop screen. In Lightroom, for example, one can easily correct for vertical distortion and rotate an image, but add horizontal adjustments plus some compensation for barrel or pincushion distortion to the mix and the shapes within an image begin to contort and vertical and horizontal lines to squiggle — and this atop the irregularities and lack of true verticals and horizontals in the subject itself, in the case of panel block buildings the results of attention to speed rather than precision during construction combined with the effects of gravity and the elements as the years pass.

So, for now, I’ll view the images above as “studies” and next time will head out with my tripod, my old folding field camera fitted with a lens and film back, or with my ever older combination of a legacy Nikon analogue body and perspective-correcting shift lens. In the meanwhile, my excuses.

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Mural, housing block, Hadji Dimitar quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2016. Fuji X100 with +1.4 lens adaptor. Click on image to enlarge.

Further to a previous entry on the presence (and, to me, mystery) of a spate of apartment-building-height murals, psychedelic in style and puzzling in content, in the adjacent Sofia neighborhoods of Poduyane and Hadji Dimitar, I’ve posted a photo of a third such mural above.

I’ve selected the photo not just for its bizarreness and whimsicality nor for the issues it raises as to the ownership and aesthetics of the public realm.  Rather, a close examination of the building on which the mural is painted summarizes a full set of urban issues which I have been researching, conceptualizing, and visually portraying over the past months and into which — ideas for grant support, anyone?!? — I intend to delve further in the time to come.

Specifically, note the balconies on the right-hand face of the building, some open as per their original design and others closed-in to expand private space.  Balconies, as I hope to explain in subsequent posts, are interstices between public and private space, and Sofia is a city of balconies. How balconies are, or are not, used reveals much about the history of and changes in social and politic environments and individual responses thereto.

Also note the monochrome, but vaguely Mondriaan-like, effect on the walls of the building in the photo above, an effect more pronounced in the photo that I’ve added below. The question of why such buildings have been insulated apartment-by-apartment rather than building-by-building, and what this tells us about societies and governments, is one that I have also been examining and visually documenting of late.  Although the aesthetic effect of uncoordinated action by apartment owners on their own relieves monotony and adds color to the public realm, devolution to the individual apartment owners is the most inefficient and inequitable means of preserving public health and comfort and of cutting heat-loss through building envelops, possibly the most weighty contributor to energy consumption/inefficiency in the built environment.  Hopefully, more on this as well.

Poduyane quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2016. Fuji X100 w/ +1.4 lens adaptor. The uncoordinated color schemes of privately insulated apartments on the facade lends an accidental Mondriaan-like counterpoint to the neo-psychedelica of the mural on the lateral face of the building.

Poduyane quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2016. Fuji X100 w/ +1.4 lens adaptor. The uncoordinated color schemes of private insulated apartments on the facade lends an accidental Mondriaan-like counterpoint to the neo-psychedelica of the mural on the building’s lateral face.

Istanbul, from Piyale Paşa to Bomonti, 2012. Fuji X100. Click on image to enlarge.

Istanbul, from Piyale Paşa Bulvari across from the Perpa wholesale complex upwards to Bomonti, 2012. Fuji X100. Click on image to enlarge.

As the summer temperatures rises, a few images of snow-dusted city-scapes that hint at the dynamics of a city …

Unlike my native New York, which — despite  falling victim to a recent epidemic of new high-rise apartment and office towers geared to the profits of real estate developers and the prerogatives of the well-heeled, many of them part-time residents  — remains a city of mostly late-19th- and early-20th-century brick structures, Istanbul, even with its plethora of centuries-old religious and secular monuments, is, in no small part, a city of concrete low-rise buildings and, more recently, of skyscrapers, shopping malls, and gated residential “communities.”

The views captured in the first and second photos in this post were taken from a one-time river valley, now the site of a multl-lane traffic thoroughfare, looking upward toward the neighborhood of Bomonti. The photos portray in miniature some of the features and processes that shape and call into question the futures of Istanbul and cities like it. Both photos captures Istanbul’s geography of heights and river valleys, with the more desirable locations on top and the least desirable at the bottom (this rooted in “ür”- concerns of rain- and waste-water drainage, air circulation, security, and  symbolism of dominance), with gentrification occurring literally from the top down.

“Landed-By-Night”

In the bottom halves of the photos are one- and two-story illegally-built squatters’ dwellings, in Turkish geçekondu, “landed-by-night,” in recognition of the regulations- and authorities-defying overnight speed and covertness with which they were built. Beginning a half-century ago, during a peak in population growth when housing was scarce and expensive, Geçekondu arose in Istanbul’s vacant lots and least desirable slopes as a grass-roots means of sheltering waves of poorer  new arrivals to the city.

Above the geçekondu, sited seemingly at random, are multistory cooperative and rental apartments built on the footprints of razed geçekondu — their sites amassed through buy-outs of squatters’-rights land titles ultimately granted to  geçekondu occupants in exchange for apartment units in buildings constructed on the footprints of their one-time illegal dwellings.

At the tops of the two photos are high-rises of skyscraper proportions. The upper left of the photo above reveals an office complex still under construction at the time  (note: these photos were taken in 2012. The same photo taken again today would contain ever more high-rises in its upper reaches). At the upper right of both photos, approaching completion, is the front-most of two adjacent twin “luxury” apartment towers with the unappetizing and dehumanizing, deadpan name of “Ant Hill Towers.” Because they are built on a downward slope, the twin high-rises of Ant Hill Towers are barely seem from the older, predominantly middle- and upper-scale neighborhoods above and also from along the Bosporus.  From Istanbul’s historic peninsula, however, Ant Hill Towers are a perpetual presence that overwhelms the skyline.

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Skyscrapers, Economies, Politics

Construction of high-rise office and apartment buildings has been a driver of the Turkish economy and a lucrative boondoggle for supporters of Turkey’s Prime Minister and his party and, as recent scandals alleged, maybe even for the Prime Minister himself. Through the filters of the cast of characters of my native New York, I sometimes see the Turkish Prime Minister as a cross between Tammany Hall’s Carmine De Sapio and ex-Mayors Rudolf Guliani and Michael Bloomberg (minus the latter’s bicycle lanes and bicycle rental programs and admittedly worthy tree-planting): i.e. cronyism plus misanthropy plus out-and-out pandering to the political and fund-raising support of real estate and construction interests.

Impacts of “Twin Towers” and the Labile Value of Views

Viewing Ant Hill Towers from a New York perspective also brings to mind … the Twin Towers of the belated World Trade Center — not from the perspective of the murderous destruction of the latter but from that of its conception and inception.  Peel away the undeniable tragedy of the attack on the World Trade Center and the present-day cheesiness and carnival of “9/11” museums and memorials, and one recalls New York’s World Trade Center as it was greeted upon its completion back in the 1960s: i.e. as a twin eyesore, an economic white-elephant that would take years to achieve a base-level of occupancy, and a burden upon the city’s infrastructure (water and sewage system, subway capacity, etc.).

It is my not-too-uneducated guess that Ant Hill Towers, not unlike the World Trade Center, was designed and built as a structure in and of itself and not as part of a city, as a vertical suburb set in the urban core. I  also assume that little if any attention was given to its effects on water/waste-water or power grids, nor to resulting surface water run-off, traffic congestion, pedestrian flows, or impacts on adjacent neighborhoods, let only on the city’s aesthetics.  What was attended to, however, was the profit potential of building on under-utilized, centrally-located land and the marketing of princely ownership of views.  Views, however, can be  ephemeral and short-lived . The more structures that rise to exploit them, the more that views become obstructed and have their value undermined.  Given time and the mushrooming of their like, views from mundane high-rises soon become views of other mundane high-rises, unwelcome mirrors rather than princely expanses.

The upper stories of the Ant Hill Towers apartment complex, as seen from a football field at the heights Feriköy, Istanbul, 2012. (Fuji X100). Click on image to enlarge.

The upper stories of the Ant Hill Towers apartment complex, as seen from a football field at the heights of Feriköy, Istanbul, 2012. (Fuji X100). Click on image to enlarge.

Broom sellers,

Roma broom sellers, Women’s Market, Sofia, Bulgaria, 1997. (Rolleiflex Tessar 𝘧3.5, Tri-X 400ASA, scan of print.) Click on image to enlarge.

Due to the length of this posting, I’ll invert the usual order and begin, rather than end, with a somewhat dry “footnote” on photographic technique; some reflections on the content of the photo — the Women’s Market, Sofia, Bulgaria — follow thereafter …

The Virtues of Slow Lenses

A good number of photographic sites I skim through on the internet betray an out-sized preoccupation with the virtues of fast, wide aperture lenses and their ability to create  narrow planes of focus and patterns of background blur.  As a counter to such, the photo above shows the virtues of slow, narrow-aperture lenses, in this case the 75mm Tessar f3.5, the built-in lens in a second-hand twin-lens Rolleiflex that I bought used more than three decades ago.  The Tessar is one of the simplest designed and lightest weight lenses ever produced but when used properly it is second to none in sharpness, detail, and contrast. The Tessar’s 75mm focal length is a tad wider than 80mm,  the usual “normal” focal length on 6x6cm medium-format film cameras.  This 5mm difference enables the Tessar to deliver slightly wider coverage when used up-close, an advantage in environmental portraiture. The extra 5mm also provides a tad more depth of field and a slight exaggeration in perspective.  The depth of field provided by the Tessar’s maximum aperture of f3.5 reduces the likeliness of focusing errors and keeps background details recognizable.  In the photo above, thus, the main subject is in crisp focus while his wares and female colleague and the pedestrian traffic and architectural features of the market street behind him are sufficiently out of focus so as not to detract from the main subject but still clear enough to provide meaning and context.

Now, on to the subject at hand: the urban dynamics and historical tales the photo reveals …

The Women’s Market, Sofia, Bulgaria

The Women’s Market — located on broad curved street, following the course of a one-time riverbed, just west of the present-day center of Sofia, Bulgaria — has a history that stretches back to the centuries when what is now Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire.  Following Bulgaria’s independence from Ottoman rule in the aftermath of the Russo-Turkish War of the 1870s, the Women’s Market was Sofia’s main retail produce outlet.  Nearly a century later, during the final years of the communist period, the Women’s Market provided a buffer of private enterprise and a reliable source of seasonal produce. Following the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989, the Women’s Market remained a chief source of fresh fruit and vegetables in a city in which old distribution systems had collapsed and new ones had not yet formed.  Over the last decade, however, the Market has been in a state of decline.  Supermarkets and shopping malls have taken root throughout Sofia, tastes have changed, and those of the city’s inhabitants with disposable cash and pretensions to mobility have moved from the urban core to the urban periphery taking their purchasing power with them.

In recent years, a large percentage of the Women’s Market’s street stalls have been removed by the municipality. At the moment, new modern multistory stall complexes wishfully described as being built for “tourists” and “artists” are under construction.  What they will look like upon completion and the exact functions they will serve is anyone’s guess.  What remains for now are rows of small enclosed kiosks selling local cheese, cured meats, and fish, plus scores of open fruit and vegetable stands under large brightly painted utilitarian canopies. Each stand is manned by vendors, some morose and silent, others vigorously or halfheartedly hawking their wares.

The endurance of the 19th century

In a lifetime of working in and observing cities in many places throughout the world, I’ve noticed that late-nineteenth century neighborhoods are amongst the last to be regenerated.  This is due in part to the resilient endurance of their economic and social functions during the twentieth century and into the early-twenty-first.  In such neighborhoods, cheap rents and high vacancy rates in storefront occupancy enabled the provision of inexpensive goods to those whose budgets constricted their choices.

The same interstice of factors offers opportunities for marginal entrepreneurship and a shot at mobility to those who might otherwise fall outside of the economy.  The low profit-margins inherent to such entrepreneurship, however, can also make for dubious goods and equally dubious practices.  Thus, shopping in the Women’s Market calls for a taste for sharp-tongued banter and a quick eye ever on the lookout for rigged scales and for good looking produce on display but underweight and damaged goods placed in one’s shopping bag.  Still, where else can one buy, for example, persimmons or grapes, albeit on the last legs of their shelf-lives, for a third of the price of elsewhere and serviceable tomatoes for even far less?

Layers of unwarranted blame

There is a fine ethnic division of work and functions at the Women’s Market.  Meat, cheese, and fish  kiosks and stands offering wild herbs and mushrooms are run by ethnic Bulgarians. Fruit and vegetable stands and peripatetic bootleg cigarette operations are run by Roma (Gypsies).  Storefronts in adjacent streets include honey and bee keeping supply stores run by Bulgarians and rows of “Arab” shops — halal butchers, spice stores, barbers, and low-cost international telephone services — run by and catering to increasing numbers of legal and illegal immigrants from Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Turkey, Central Asia, and Afghanistan. Many Bulgarians, their weak self esteem shakily bolstered by contempt for “others,” blame the shoddier commercial practices of this wonderfully vibrant marginal neighborhood on the presence and “inferiority” of such outsiders.

Several years ago, I attended an open town meeting on the future of the Women’s Market and its surroundings.  The meeting degenerated into hysterical, racist tirades against the presence and practices of Roma stand-holders and market laborers, this despite their being hardworking people trying to extract a semblance of a living from admittedly marginal trade and low-value added labor.  Banish the Gypsies, the sense of the meeting implied, keep the neighborhood “white” and Christian, and the market area with magically become upscale and all will be well.  Not a thought was given to viewing the attempts at entrepreneurship on the part of Roma as social and economic assets to be incubated, this whether out of commitment to equal opportunity or to the  insights of developmental  economists such as Albert O. Hirschman.  The neighborhood’s “Arabs” were denounced with equal rage.

Bulgarians complain that Roma do not work, but when Roma do work and commence to gain economic stability, the majority population reacts vengefully.  Rage and blame have deep roots at the Women’s Market.  On a symbolic level, blame even muddies the market’s name.  During the communist period, the market had been renamed after Georgi Kirkov, an early Bulgarian left-wing trade unionist who died soon after the First World War.  Following the collapse of Soviet-bloc communism, Kirkov’s name was expunged and Kirkov himself anachronistically assigned a share of blame for the mistakes and misdeeds of a neo-Stalist regime that came to power almost three decades after his death.  Today, only a unkempt bust of Kirkov remains, mounted on graffiti-daubed pedestal in a small triangular park in which idle market day-laborers, elderly Roma mostly, congregate to smoke cigarettes, drink cheap alcohol from half-pint bottles, and while away the hours.

Festering blame that has never been resolved

There is another level of blame and contempt, however, that festers under the surface of debates pertaining to the Market.  During the Second World War, the Bulgarian army rounded-up and deported to their death 18,000 Jews from Macedonia and northeastern Greece, areas ceded to Bulgaria by Nazi Germany in reward for favorable trade terms and a lion’s share of Bulgaria’s gold reserves.  At the same time, within the boundaries of the Kingdom of Bulgaria proper, 50,000+ Jews were socially and economically disenfranchised and legally robbed of their real and movable property.  Tens of thousands of Jews were deported from Sofia to the countryside; the younger and fitter male deportees were sent to work as slave laborers on road crews and the rest were left to fend for themselves without means of support in isolated villages. As a boon to ethnic Bulgarians living in Sofia, the deportation freed up hundreds of businesses (most of them marginal), thousands of dwellings in a city short of housing stock, and tens of thousands of places in the workforce.

From the post-war period on, Bulgarians called the seizure of Jewish property and the deportation of Jews from Sofia “The Saving of the Jews,” giving a self-congratulatory spin to the large percentage of Jews in Bulgaria that came through the war alive, something that can be more accurately ascribed to Bulgaria’s being knocked out of the war by the Soviet Union in mid-1944. The reaction of more than 90% of the Jews in the Bulgaria to such a “saving,” was clear enough: emigrate en masse, mostly to Israel, not long after the war ended.  Prior to the war, Sofia’s Jews had formed the bulk of the residents of the market quarter.  Their  deportation and post-war emigration created a vacuum in the midst of the city’s center and led to discontinuities and dislocations from which the streets surrounding the Women’s Market have yet to recover.

Rag-sellers, “çıfıtcı,” and voting with my wallet

Today, in a country almost without Jews, Jews remain an obsession for many Bulgarians and a target of their hostility and condescension.  This especially holds true for populist agitators and amongst Bulgarians with higher incomes and social standing, whether real or self-ascribed.  In such circles, Jews are blamed for communism and for capitalism and for imagined secret cabals that subvert Bulgaria and steer the world.  The poisonous, fraudulent “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” remains a best-seller at outdoor book stalls in Sofia, as do conspiracy theory books involving Israel’s Mossad.  Walls are daubed with antisemitic (and anti-Roma and anti-Turkish) slogans, the work of bands of neo-fascist football (soccer) supporters.  Few social gatherings of upper-income or self-styledly cultured Bulgarians are complete without the telling of “yevreiski vitsovi” (“Jewish jokes”) — jokes about Jews rather than by them, usually with story lines about rich but stupid Jews outsmarting themselves in avaricious schemes.

In truth, prior to the Second World War, most Jews in Bulgaria were marginal shopkeepers and low-income craftsmen, laborers, and peddlers. Like today’s Roma, Jews were blamed for the inherent defects of the economic niches in which they labored and the social niches in which they lived.  Early in the twentieth century, many Sofia Jews were old-clothes and rag vendors, literally, thus, members of the “lumpenproletariat.” To this day, in Bulgaria, Jews — be they doctors, scholars, merchants, or ordinary folks like this writer — are contemptuously referred to as “chifuti,” a Bulgarian-language bastardization of the Turkish term “çıfıtcı” or old-clothes- and rag-seller.  Personally, as someone who has worked for others since my 13th year, and whose roots are in a world not dissimilar to the that of the Women’s Market, I am quite willing to wear the label of “çıfıtcı“with pride.  For this reason, when in Sofia, I happily continue to  do my shopping in and around the Women’s Market and loyally patronize its Roma vendors …  this regardless of any and all bruised and overripe fruit or real or imagined thumbs on scales!  As to antisemitic, anti-Roma , anti-worker “cultured” Bulgarians, as we used to say in the Yiddish-English patois of my native Lower East Side of Manhattan: “Geh’n’d’r’ert!” (“Sink into the ground”).  After years of listening to their racist hatefulness  and class-condescension of , I’m always available to lend a helpful push.

Cotton candy and toffee vendor at day's end.  Uskudar, Istanbul, Turkey, 2013. (Fuji X100.) Click to enlarge.

Almost sold out! Cotton candy and toffee vendor hastening home at day’s end. Ferry landing, Uskudar, Istanbul, Turkey, 2013. (Fuji X100, manually zone-focused while walking.) Click to enlarge.

Please indulge me while I repeat in short what most of us know quite well at length …

The last third of the 20th century saw the rise and flourishing  of socialism for the rich, generously financed by the taxes of those in the middle and working classes.  From America’s infamous Lockheed bailout in the 1970s to the billions of dollars in public funds poured into the craws of General Motors and banks “to big to fail” in the aftermath of the world financial implosion of 2008, large enterprises have been saved by funds cannibalized away from the expenditures on infrastructure and human resources on which our futures depend.  Small enterprises and individuals, on the other hand, are allowed to go under.  In Western Europe, semi-governmental lending institutions provide established companies with capital o expand and  commence new ventures.  Any one else who wants to obtain  capital and buy time to go “entrepreneurial” is left to their own devices and fed 19th-century platitudes about self-reliance and free markets. 

And now a few words about the photograph …

The photograph above shows a familiar presence in Istanbul: the wandering cotton candy vendor. His capital: a long pole, a box of pushpins, and a will to walk the parks and promenades of the city from dawn to dusk.   His stock: a few dozen bouquets of spun-sugar “cotton candy” and a few score cellophane bags of cheap toffee.  His income: minimal.  But the uncontrolled economic chaos of Istanbul at least gives him a chance to earn something.  In the US, he would be checked for his pedlar’s license, inspected for hygiene, and arrested for loitering if he stood still.  In Western Europe, he would have to follow months-long mandatory courses in retailing and management.  And, wherever he worked, if and when things went bad, he would be deemed “too small to be saved.”

A technical footnote …

One of the obsessions of many internet photography weblogs is the micro-second differences between automatic and manual focusing speeds of different makes and models of digital cameras. The photo above was taken using a notoriously “slow-focusing” camera — the Fuji X100 — by “zone-focusing” in advance in manual mode just as the vendor and I were approaching one another at a brisk pace.  Slow compared to cameras used by sports and wildlife photographers, most certainly, but no slower than my 1960s twin-lens Rolleis!

An infrastructural question: Will seaside boardwalks survive the 21st century?

A look at the New York region suggests that they might not.  The resurgence of nature over urban artifice during last year’s Hurricane Sandy revealed anew the importance of regeneration and/or conservancy of natural coastlines.  The flooding that devastated nearby Long Beach on the south shore of Long Island, for example, would have been avoided or minimized had natural sand dunes still been in place that were removed early in the twentieth century to clear the way for apartments with oceanside frontage and the construction of a magnificent miles-long boardwalk promenade.  This year’s fire to the south of New York City on New Jersey’s Atlantic shore owed its rapid spread to the very materials that give boardwalks their name: wood-plank paving.   And, yet, boardwalks remain urban necessities.

Shuttered monument to a forgotten Brooklyn politician: Abe Stark Sport Center, Boardwalk, Coney Island-Brighton Beach, 2011. (Fuji X100)

Shuttered monument to a forgotten Brooklyn politician: Abe Stark Sport Center, Boardwalk, Coney Island-Brighton Beach, 2011.(Fuji X100.)  In the foreground: the characteristic herringbone wood planking of New York City boardwalks and a lone dented trash barrel painted in the signature green of the NYC Dept. of Parks.

From fashion to survival

Boardwalks are products of the interstice of 19th-century romanticism and 19th-century urbanity, in which nature was a picturesque backdrop to be seen but not touched, to be witnessed — but with dry and unsoiled shoes — from the safety and elegance of seaside promenades and beach-front hotels and restaurants. In the context of the lives of millions of ordinary New Yorkers — this writer and two generations of his forebears included — the boardwalk at Coney Island was and remains central to urban survival.   Like Manhattan’s Central Park and Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, the Coney Island boardwalk from Brighton Beach past Coney Island to Seagate gives New Yorkers who lack the means to vacation or to travel afar access to fresh air and a refuge from urban congestion and searing summer heat.

Outlets to the sea

The Coney Island boardwalk was built ninety years ago, a time when the farmlands of Brooklyn were being paved over en masse for the construction of seemingly endless expanses of working- and lower-middle-class apartments for immigrants and their children fleeing cramped, degrading housing conditions in lower Manhattan.  Their flight followed the paths of newly built subways lines, trajectories that gave also gave shape to the schemes of real estate speculators.   The continuation of subway lines to the seaside, and thus to Coney Island, afforded the urban working poor an easy outlet to the beach and to walks and leisurely socializing on surfaces less oppressive than urban concrete, and to sounds less intrusive than the ever-present rattling of horse carts and, later, the roar of automobiles.

Changing numbers, changing faces

Over the last century, usage of the Coney Island boardwalk has fluctuated in parallel with the fortunes and changing demographics of its immediate hinterland.  (A lengthy subject that I will save for future posts.)  The apogee of the boardwalk’s crowds and popularity was in the 1930s and early 1940s.  A decline set in after the Second World War and continued through 1970s.  A revival was sparked in the late-1970s, in part by the settlement in Brighton Beach of tens of thousands of mostly Jewish immigrants from the Soviet Union.  Over the past decades, the faces seen, and accents and languages heard, along the boardwalk have changed from those of Jews, Irish, and Italians — once amongst the dominant ethnic groups in New York — to those of African-Americans, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, Russians, Central Asians, Indians, Pakistanis, Mexicans, and Chinese.  What has remained constant is the precarious place of boardwalk denizens towards the lower rungs of New York City’s housing and economy.

From infrastructure to serendipity

During the 1930s and early-40s, under President Roosevelt’s New Deal and the mayor-ship of Fiorello LaGuardia, investment in and maintenance of public infrastructure, both physical and social, was seen as a core task of government – – a means for collectively facilitating the lives and advancement of all individuals comprising our society and, not least, ensuring social peace in the process.  Parks, beaches, and boardwalks included, were parts of the mix.

America's shoreline: John"s Italian Ices and a tattered US flag. Sunset at the Coney Island Boardwalk, 2011. (Fuji X100)

America’s shoreline: John”s Italian Ices and a tattered US flag. Sunset at the Coney Island Boardwalk, 2011. (Fuji X100)

“Fast forward” to the years of New York as financial center and the Bloomberg years, the age of a real-estate-development-driven economy, increasing unequal distribution of wealth, and “Manhattanization” (a new phrase coined to describe the phenomenon of a economically and demographically variegated city or part thereof suddenly turning into a preserve of those at the upper income levels, this a la the fate of much of Manhattan since the start of the millennium).

Over the last decade, social and physical infrastructure and their maintenance are increasingly surrendered to private enterprises or left to the serendipitous voluntarism of “public private partnerships.”   One of the results has been the filleting of the public funds for parks maintenance and the establishment in place thereof of “public-private partnerships” in the form of “conservancies” linked to individual properties.  The outcome has been predictable.  Manhattan’s Central Park, the city’s highest profile park facility, flanked by three of New York’s wealthiest district is governed and funded by a conservation with an immense endowment and budget.  Brooklyn’s Prospect Park Conservancy struggles to cover costs and many of the parks facilities still dependent on filleted public funds languish.

“Let them walk on concrete:”

Wood paved boardwalks splinter, warp, and rot, they are maintenance intensive and require periodic resurfacing.  In the spirit of Marie Antoinette advising the bread-starved poor of pre-revolutionary Paris  “… let them eat cake,”  the Bloomberg era’s prescription for the patrons of the Brighton Beach-Coney Island boardwalk appeared to be: “… let them walk on concrete.”   A couple of years ago, large sections of the boardwalk surface were stripped of their wood and replaced by prefabricated modular sections of light-colored concrete with surfaces crudely textured to give the impression of wood grain.  The modular sections were poorly leveled and sloppily abutted.

The immediate reaction?  Small crowds of boardwalk denizens gathered in amazement and  Read More

An anchored boat converted to a fish sandwich and fried anchovy restaurant, Golden Horn, Hasköy, Istanbul, 2013.  Note the kitchen topped with jaunty chimney  perched precariously in the after-fitted poop-deck. (Fuji X100)  Click to enlarge.

An one-time small urban ferry converted to a fish sandwich and fried anchovy (hamsi) restaurant, moored on the shore of the Golden Horn, Hasköy, Istanbul, 2013. Note the kitchen and its jaunty chimney perched precariously in an after-fitted poop-deck. (Fuji X100) Click to enlarge.

Further to a previous post on Gezi Park, Istanbul street vendors, etc.

One of the concepts that has stuck with me from my long-ago graduate training is in the form of a concisely worded dictum that continues to prove its veracity over and again in scores of cities worldwide.  I’ve forgotten the precise wording and source, but the  paraphrase that follows is faithful to original: “The economy of a city is dependent on a continuous supply of declining housing stock.”

Hirschman

The concept, it turns out, comes from the works of economist Albert 0. Hirschman.  There has been a recent revival of interests in Hirschman’s life, professional accomplishments, and thought.  The publication earlier this year of a biography of Hirschman brought in its wake articles and reviews in the New York Review of Books, the New Yorker, and the New York Times.  The course of Hirschman’s life — childhood in Berlin, anti-Nazi activist, volunteer in the Spanish Civil War, smuggler of Jewish refugees out of Vichy France, victim of the McCarthy era in the US, specialist in international development, resident scholar at Princeton — is as fascinating as his economics, the latter a non-ideological pragmatism, literary rather than econometric in method, that side-steps master plans to find opportunities in seeming negativities and value in seeming dysfunctions.

The Power of Decline

Declining housing (and commercial) stock provides shelter for those on the way up and those on the way down.  It enables the solvency of those who do heavy-lifting and work at the edges of economies, those very people without whom neither industrial not service economies can function.  It provides affordable locales for cultural renewal and technological innovation.  It provides space for new sectors and enables older sectors — and the employment they provide and skills they preserve — to survive.  It contributes to the social interaction and proximity to others who are different than one’s self that is central to democracy. For generations, the agglomerations of flexible, high value-added, small enterprises that grew around the entrepot functions of cities such as New York had been dependent on re-purposed inexpensive physical plant.

Afterthoughts: From Istanbul to Harlem

  • Apropos of the recent protests in Istanbul, as treated in a number of past posts below, opportunities for incremental reuse contribute far more to social and political cohesion than do the seizing of public space and the razing of viable structures and neighborhoods to make way for massive development projects driven by political cronyism and the financial self-interests of investors and design-driven megalomania of architects.
  • As we see from the photo above, ample supplies of underutilized urban coastline also contribute to the mix of seeming negatives that Hirschman would encourage looking at afresh — likewise with ample supplies of declining boat stock!
  • Last, for a few words on the negative impact of sudden “upscaling” of a a viable and creative neighborhood many of the strengths of which was rooted in its state of perpetual decline, click here for a piece I wrote some years ago mourning the closing of the old Reliable’s Cafeteria and its upscale sister, Copeland’s Restaurant, on West 145th St. in New York City’s Harlem.