City Space as Projective Medium: From Coronavirus Quarantine to Urban Uprisings

The current confluence of the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic and popular political demonstrations has provided strikingly urgent examples of how city space may be actualized as a projective medium. By “projective medium” I mean to describe a repurposing of urban environments wherein public space serves as a canvas not only for the circulation of artistic representations or political slogans but for the staging of interventions of imagination, a testing ground for potential futures. Within the past few months we have seen dramatic and unprecedented reconfigurations of public space: first in the widespread “lockdown” and “stay at home” measures designed to mitigate the viral transmission of COVID-19; and secondly with irruption of mass protests against police brutality and extrajudicial killings of people of color. Both of these “moments” have offered profound illustrations of the social production of space, as well as ways in which the physical infrastructure of the built environment is an inherently politicized terrain.

In the early days of the Coronavirus quarantines reconsiderations of urban space focused on absence and withdrawal. Photographs of unoccupied Los Angeles freeways and deserted downtown districts circulated widely online. At the end of March the New York Times published a photo essay documenting quietude throughout the five boroughs with the title “New York Was Not Designed For Emptiness.” The fascination with emptied city spaces is certainly linked to visual tropes of apocalyptic fiction and representations of humanity’s end depicted so often in popular culture: the silent streets and vacant plazas served as visual confirmation of the otherwise “unseen” virus, and visceral reminder of our ultimately precarious civilization. The allure of these images may also be linked to a desire for (psychological) distance from the biological threat. Writing in the Verso Books blog, Rob Horning credited such photographs with reinforcing a sense of “exemption” from the vagaries of the natural world and from the virus itself:

“Our ability to appreciate these images doesn’t underscore our ultimate harmony or interconnection with the natural world and the life that purportedly re-emerges when the highways are finally vacated. Rather it lets us use mediation (our ability to consume representations) to rearticulate our exceptionality. We can assume the subject position of the camera and pretend that makes us immune to being objects in the world.”

The onset of “social distancing” induced an attitudinal shift in how we related to the shared spaces of everyday life. The withdrawal from public places to the atomistic dwelling of self-isolation created a sort of vacuum, opening up a space in which new meanings and relations could be introduced. In many cities around the world residents rediscovered the balcony as a link between the individual and communal worlds. Balconies have always served as liminal spaces between the publicity of the street and the privacy of the home. During quarantine these sites gained renewed significance as spaces for performance and communication. Neighbors socialized from across their respective railings, and a new routine developed where residents would gather to applaud medical workers from their balconies at appointed shift-change times.

The mass migration indoors prompted rediscovery of the built environment as communication medium in other ways. I am particularly fond of the various projects that involved projecting films onto the sides of buildings. In Rome the cinema organization Alice nella Città began scheduling regular projections of classic films, and encouraged any citizens with the ability to do so to implement their own screenings. In Berlin the Windowflicks project hosted screenings by projecting movies on the walls of residential courtyards. (On a somewhat related note, I was disappointed to learn that Vulcan Video, a beloved DVD rental business in Austin, TX and one of my most frequented locales when I lived in that city, did not survive the Coronavirus outbreak.)

At the end of May the insular isolation of “stay at home” measures reversed into a dramatic reclamation of the streets. In the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands police, residents of Minneapolis turned out en masse in the neighborhood where he was killed. The initial days of the demonstrations saw vandalism and destruction of corporate businesses in the neighborhood beginning with an AutoZone store. (In addition to semiotically presaging the eventual advent of “autonomous zone” in popular discourse and U.S. urban imaginaries, the prominence of the AutoZone and other automotive businesses in the subsequent unrest throughout Minneapolis and St. Paul testifies not only to the dominance of car culture in U.S. spatial design, but also to the legacy of highway expansions and car-centric development that decimated predominantly Black urban communities throughout the 20th Century.)

During the first two days of protests a Target store nearby the site of Floyd’s death was thoroughly looted and vandalized. In addition to the store’s interior being effectively gutted, the exterior walls were blanketed with spraypainted messages. In the days that followed political graffiti and anti-police slogans became a ubiquitous visual element of the demonstrations unfolding in cities throughout the United States, even occupying part of the backdrop for Donald Trump’s infamous bible photo-op in Washington D.C. Here again the latent potential for the built environment to serve as a projective medium was dramatically actualized. The pervasive presence of political graffiti messages recalled the spraypainted slogans of the May 68 demonstrations in Paris, just as the scenes of civil unrest evoked the 1968 U.S. urban riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

Over the past three weeks the urban uprisings have continued to spread throughout the U.S., perhaps reaching their temporary apogee with the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ). The CHAZ designation refers to the occupation of a six-block area in central Seattle centered around the vacated East Precinct police headquarters. Since it’s emergence in popular discourse the message and meaning of the CHAZ has been the subject of public debate. Authoritarian discourses have demonized the occupation as a terroristic takeover, while more amicable readings of the space have characterized it in terms of a festival atmosphere with arts and music. Several early accounts featured images and accounts of a film screening in the CHAZ: participants watching Ava DuVernay’s “13th” on a projection screen set up in an occupied intersection.

As with the aforementioned outdoor cinema projects implemented under Coronavirus quarantine, the urban reimagining of the CHAZ features film screenings in urban space, a repurposing of city streets as movie theaters. It thus offers another opportunity to consider the built environment as a projective medium. Again, this sense of “projective medium” extends beyond merely repurposing urban infrastructure as a material support for communication. Yes, the occupied urban space of the CHAZ features murals, spraypainted slogans, and other forms of artistic and political representation. But the greater “message” of the occupation is a radical rethinking of the logics underlying the organization of urban life itself. The various artistic interventions launched in response to the COVID-19 outbreak similarly call into question certain unspoken assumptions undergirding collective dwelling.

(In distinguishing between the “form” and the “content” of these creative repurposings of urban space it is important to recognize that the content in the respective cases is obviously significant. The CHAZ occupiers were screening a documentary about racial inequality in the United States, a subject clearly connected to the broader socio-historical context and political intent of Black Lives Matter protests. Would we interpret the scene differently if the CHAZ audience was watching “The Wizard of Oz,” or “Trolls 2”? Similarly, how would our understanding of the outdoor screenings in Rome and Berlin be altered if the organizers were projecting political documentaries instead of classic films?)

Both the Coronavirus pandemic and the urban demonstrations have prompted a reimagining of the structures that shape our daily lives. Rather than idle speculation or “mere” philosophical musings, the emergent issues underlying these provocations present themselves as urgent and unavoidable. They reveal the necessity of the radical reassessment of social reality.

Most of the questions prompted by the Coronavirus have to do with resuming “business as usual” in a way that will prevent another outbreak. What will work and schooling look like after the lockdown? Will telecommuting become the new norm? Should theaters and concert venues reopen to full capacity? Will any area of life return to its pre-pandemic state? The questions and demands voiced in the ongoing anti-racism protests feature a different focus, but they also call for sweeping structural reforms. Calls to “defund the police” have been explicated as a “reimagining” of what public safety and community-oriented state initiatives can look like. These twin crises thus raise awareness of infrastructural and social failures (of the healthcare system, of adequate preventative measures, of policing procedures, of systemic racism, etc.), but they also draw attention to failures of imagination. Questions about what kind of world we want to live in are increasingly superseded by questions of what kind of world will enable us to survive.

While the twin events represented by the global pandemic and anti-oppression uprisings therefore share significant similarities, they may be productively differentiated by the directional orientation of their respective inciting elements. The shock and disruption of the Coronavirus outbreak can be characterized as a movement inward driven by an outside impetus, whereas the protests represent an outward movement compelled by inner antagonisms. Social distancing and “safer-at-home” self-isolation measures were restrictive responses to an outside foreign force (foreign or alien in the sense that the virus is not human, not in any sort of xenophobic or Sinophobic sense as conveyed by the “Chinese virus” and “kung flu” dysphemisms). The mass occupations of city streets and other urban spaces was an expansive outwardly-directed response to failures and contradictions within the society itself, including inherent racial injustice, class antagonisms, and a generalized precariousness engendered by neoliberal capitalism. The two movements thus represent two imperatives to reimagine our world: one compelled from without, the other incurred from within. (There were, of course, many interrelated and exacerbating factors connecting the pandemic response with the protests, such as the economic disruption, soaring unemployment, disproportionate health outcomes along racial lines, etc.)

One way to interpret the sudden transition from vacant, socially-distanced public spaces to massively occupied city streets is to view space as a blank slate onto which various forces or groups project their politicized messages. However, it would be misleading to consider the urban as an empty signifier, or city space as a neutral container subject to contestations over who gets to fill it with meaning. The built environment is always already a politicized terrain, shaped by value-laden design decisions and governed by policy and force. Urban space emptied of content does not reveal the material landscape as a merely objective fact or value neutral background for social life. Instead, both the images of emptied city streets in the time of Corona and the scenes of massive demonstrations in public space attest to a fact that the urban form shares with all communication media: the medium is the message.

Sick of Serial Killing: The Virulence of Hate in a Time of Contagion

The following reflections were originally written several years ago for a graduate seminar. I’ve decided to share these thoughts here because they seem highly resonant with the current moment. For one thing, the essay links metaphors of contagious disease with activist rhetoric deployed against public apathy and racialized violence. These connections take on a renewed relevance in the context of the massive ongoing demonstrations against police violence which are occurring amidst the COVD-19 global pandemic. Secondly, the brief essay develops the connection between virulence and hate by thinking through the polemical rhetoric of Larry Kramer’s AIDS activism. This provides another confluence with current events in light of Kramer’s death two weeks ago on May 27th.

Larry Kramer’s association with AIDS activism stems not only from the duration and determination of his involvement, but also from his impassioned rhetorical style. Erin Rand identifies Kramer’s style as polemical, and identifies four rhetorical features unique to the polemical form: alienating expressions of emotion, non-contingent assertions of truth, presumptions of shared morality, and the constitution of enemies, audiences, and publics (p. 301). Rand distinguishes Kramer’s polemical style from other uses of anger in rhetoric or public address in that Kramer does not “attempt to elicit anger from the audience, unite the audience through their shared sense of anger, or move them to action based on emotion; rather, Kramer performs his own anger at what he perceives to be the audience’s failure to behave in the way that he desires” (p. 302).

Rand cites as characteristic of Kramer’s polemics the building through a succession of factual statements that culminate in “a climactic display of fury and frustration” (p. 302).

“Hence, polemics refute dominant ideologies and modes of thinking by rejecting the primacy of reason and invoking explicitly moral claims. In polemics a moral position is not simply advanced through rhetoric, but morality actually does rhetorical work.” (p. 305)

Similarly, West considered the function of emotion in productions of the Kramer-penned play The Normal Heart:

“To realize a future different from the past, the producers had to take steps to motivate their audiences to translate their emotions into action once they had left the show. If the play was merely cathartic and enjoyed as a terrible chapter of history, then surely they had failed.” (p.100)

“Through the explicit targeting of younger audiences and distributing Kramer’s plea for help, the producers enabled rage, anger, and outrage.” (p. 101)

Feminist writer and activist Audre Lorde also saw anger as potentially productive. According to Olson: “Lorde distinguished between anger and hatred, and she salvaged the former as potentially useful and generative” (p. 287). Lorde’s distinction between anger and hatred is developed in a quote from her remarks: “Hatred is the fury of those who do not share our goals, and its object is death and destruction. Anger is a grief of distortions between peers, and its object is change” (p. 298).

In a quote from her “The Uses of Anger,” Lorde uses the metaphor of the virus to describe hatred:

“We are working in a context of oppression and threat, the cause of which is certainly not the angers which lie between us, but rather that virulent hatred leveled against all women, people of Color, lesbians and gay men, poor people – against all of us who are seeking to examine the particulars of our lives as we resist our oppressions, moving toward coalition and effective action.” (emphasis added)

Other authors have connected hatred with disease. This thematic link is made, for example, in Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing. While the film’s characters never state the distinction between anger and hatred as explicitly as Lorde does, the film makes many associations that establish a difference between the two. The action of the film takes place in a roughly 24 hour period, during the hottest day of the summer in Brooklyn, New York. The temperature is referenced throughout the film, and the link between the heat and character’s emotions is made early on. Anger is associated with heat: characters talk about “getting hot” as a euphemism for getting angry. By extension then, the hottest day of the summer could also be understood as the angriest.

Hatred, on the other hand, is continually linked with sickness and disease. Early in the film, when pizzeria owner Sal arrives with his two sons to start business for the day, his son Pino says of the pizza shop:

“I detest this place like a sickness.”

Sal admonishes his son, saying: “That sounds like hatred.”

This connection returns at the end of film, again in front of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, which at this point has been reduced to a smoldering shell. Mookie seeks Sal out to ask for the wages he is due from the previous week’s labor. Angrily, Sal throws $500 in $100 bills at Mookie, twice as much as he is owed. Mookie leaves $200 on the ground, telling Sal that he only wants what he has earned. There is a stalemate as the two men stare off, the $200 between them, and each of them waiting for the other to pick it up. Apparently not understanding why Mookie would leave the money lying on the ground Sal asks him:

“Are you sick?”

Mookie: “I’m hot as a motherfucker; I’m alright, though.”

Mookie’s response here should not be understood merely as a comment about the weather. Yes, he is hot because of the summer heat, but the associations presented by the film make clear the deeper meaning of this exchange. Mookie is angry, angry as a motherfucker; having endured the ordeal of the hottest day of the summer, culminating in his throwing a trashcan through a shop window, and now he finds himself the following day with his various responsibilities still in place, but now without a source of income. But he does not hate Sal. He is not infected by hatred. He is not sick.

If the film associates hatred with sickness and disease, how does it relate or portray love? The radio DJ character, Mister Senor Love Daddy, seems like an obvious connection. Another important component is the name of Senor Love Daddy’s radio station: We Love Radio 108 (“Last on your dial, first in your heart.”). The name of the radio station not only presages Clear Channel Communications’ eventual rebranding to I Heart Radio, it also establishes a connection between love and another of the film’s characters: Radio Raheem.

Radio Raheem is arguably the character most closely associated with the concepts of love and hate. Raheem has custom brass knuckles on each hand: the word “LOVE” on his right hand, and the word “HATE” on his left. Through the presence of these words on his knuckles, and his performance of the accompanying story about the struggle between love and hate, “the story of life,” Radio Raheem recalls Reverend Harry Powell from the 1955 film Night of the Hunter. Reverend Powell has the words “love” and “hate” tattooed on his knuckles: love on the right hand, and hate on the left. He also tells “the story of life,” which, although using different language than Raheem, tells essentially the same account of a struggle between hate and love, where hate has the upper hand for a while but is eventually beat out by love.

In Night of the Hunter, Reverend Powell’s performance of pious geniality conceals a dark secret: he is a serial killer, traveling the country seducing widows whom he soon murders before absconding with what wealth he can steal. In Do the Right Thing, Radio Raheem is not revealed to be a serial killer, but he is done in by a sort of serial killing: the recurring killing of men of color perpetrated by police officers. The characters of the film react to Raheem’s death in a personal way (“They killed Radio Raheem!”), but it is clearly also a reaction to this serial killing of black men that contributes to the crowd’s reaction (someone is heard exclaiming, “They did it again!”). The rage at serial killing is evident also in Larry Kramer’s AIDS activism, as seen in his essay “1,112 and Counting,” and his exhortations to audience members at his plays that their inaction was responsible for the real life deaths of the characters portrayed.

A final question: Is Do the Right Thing a polemic? I find it interesting to consider the question in light of the definitions offered by this week’s featured authors. Rand traces the meaning of “polemic” to the Greek polemikos, meaning “warlike,” and when Lee’s film was released many reviewers and commentators were concerned that it amounted to a call for violence. I am not sure the film satisfies Rand’s four elements of rhetorical form, but I do believe it satisfies the rhetorical move that Olson calls shifting subjectivities:

“An advocate articulates a shift in the second persona of an address, wherein the auditors or readers occupy one kind of role initially and then, drawing on what is remembered or learned from that position, are repositioned subsequently into a different role that is harder for them to recognize or occupy, but that might possess some transforming power.” (p. 284)

As film critic Roger Ebert recounted in an essay about the film:

“Many audiences are shocked that the destruction of Sal’s begins with a trash can thrown through the window by Mookie (Lee), the employee Sal refers to as ‘like a son to me.’ Mookie is a character we’re meant to like. Lee says he has been asked many times over the years if Mookie did the right thing. Then he observes: ‘Not one person of color has ever asked me that question.’ But the movie in any event is not just about how the cops kill a black man and a mob burns down a pizzeria. That would be too simple, and this is not a simplistic film. It covers a day in the life of a Brooklyn street, so that we get to know the neighbors, and see by what small steps the tragedy is approached.”

Some critics and audience members objected to what they interpreted as Lee’s call for violence, and at least an implicit approval of property destruction. We heard similar rhetoric in the last year, when protests in response to the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner became characterized by media emphasis on incidents of property damage and looting. The state response to protests is always characterized by a tolerance so long as demonstrations are peaceful and “civil,” and when this line is broached it functions to demonize and dismiss the “protestors” at large. Is this not evocative of the white woman who purportedly said to Audre Lorde, “Tell me how you feel, but don’t say it too harshly or I cannot hear you”?

References

West, Isaac. “Reviving Rage.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 98, no. 1 (2012): 97-102.

Olson, Lester C. “Anger Among Allies: Audre Lorde’s 1981 Keynote Admonishing the National Women’s Studies Association.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 97, no. 3 (2011): 283-308.

Rand, Erin J. “An inflammatory fag and a queer form: Larry Kramer, polemics, and rhetorical agency.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 94, no. 3 (2008): 297-319.

King Assassination: 50 years later

On April 4th 1968 Martin Luther King Jr was killed by an assassin’s bullet. In the immediate aftermath African Americans took to the streets of several U.S. cities in a wave of riots and unrest that lasted for days. The killing of the most visible and influential figure of the civil rights movement provoked an irruption of anguished anger which was further stoked by years of simmering tension and resentment in America’s disinvested and disenfranchised urban black communities. Pittsburgh was among the U.S. cities to see significant tumult, with nearly a week of riots erupting in the Hill District, the city’s center of black life and culture. I still occasionally encounter Pittsburghers citing the Hill riots as an example of blacks “irrationally” destroying their “own” communities as a historical rationalization for longstanding social and economic plights facing Hill residents, as well as implicitly justifying the American apartheid of residential segregation and uneven spatialization. The King assassination riots became emblematic of what came to be known as the “urban crisis” in the United States. A young Richard Sennett responded to the urban unrest of the late 1960’s in his classic work of urban sociology, “The Uses of Disorder.” Sennett’s timely and prescient text presaged the advent of affluent “gated” communities and other emerging forms of social stratification and segregation. Defying the forces of entropy, Richard Nixon made the urban crisis a substantial element of his 1968 presidential campaign as the “law and order” candidate, a rhetorical strategy echoed in Donald Trump‘s 2016 presidential run.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has created an excellent interactive retrospective titled “The Week the Hill Rose Up.” Another Post-Gazette story explores the history behind August Wilson’s play Two Trains Running, which dramatized the fallout of the Hill riots.

From CityLab: “Cities on Fire 1968 – Urban America after MLK

The Washington Post has marked the anniversary with an article on how then-mayor of Cleveland Carl B. Stokes “helped save his city from burning” following the King assassination.

Writing for the ACLU, Jeffrey Robinson reflects and observes that fifty years later “we remain two societies, ‘separate and unequal.'”

2001: 50 years later

2001: A Space Odyssey had its world premiere 50 years ago today. I plan to have much more content commemorating the Semicentennial of this masterwork throughout the year, but in the meantime and in order to mark the anniversary of the premiere, check out 2001: A Book Odyssey from Paolo Granata which showcases 2001 book cover designs  created by more than 180 students from the University of Toronto.

book odyssey

Of course, my take on the Clarke book is summed up by Heywood Floyd in the film: “More specifically, your opposition to the cover story…”

Reflections and Reverberations of 1968

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Since this past summer I’ve been immersed in my dissertation project, and this increased workload has not only affected my overall output on this blog but has diminished my ability to draft content based on its mere timeliness. I was photographing the Monroeville Mall (of Dawn of the Dead fame) the day before George Romero died last October, and failed to seize that kairotic moment to observe his passing and my personal history with his films. I had a second opportunity around Halloween when there were a series of zombie-related events in Pittsburgh, including a screening of Day of the Dead and discussion with cast and crew. I’ve also been planning on writing up my thoughts on Blade Runner 2049, yet this still hasn’t materialized more than five months after the film’s release. Now that we’re seven weeks into 2018, I’m trying to at least recognize some contemporary cultural resonance before the whole year passes.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the myriad soul-stirring, heartbreaking, and perennially radical events that transpired worldwide in 1968. A time in which, amongst other things, the war machine seemed to rage out of control and a peace movement formed to meet it. A time when revolutionary leaders emerged to galvanize collective action and imagination, and assassins rose up to cut them down. A time of unprecedented protests and street demonstrations which were often subdued with violence. It’s the revolutionary energy of the late 60s zeitgeist that Hunter S. Thompson beautifully eulogized in his famous “wave speech.”

And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . .

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

I was born nearly three decades after these seismic cultural shocks, and am still trying to grasp the sheer scope of the various events. Many of the movements and moments associated with 1968 involve irruptions in media and urban culture, and so have great resonance with my own area of inquiry. I began my dissertation last year, which was the 50th anniversary of Lefebvre’s writing on “The Right to the City.” Lefebvre was of course a significant intellectual influence for the May ’68 events in Paris. The year is also a watershed date for U.S. cities and the country’s “urban crisis.” My current home university, the University of Pittsburgh, is hosting a series of events through April considering the impacts and lessons of 1968 from global perspectives. Throughout the year I have the opportunity to engage with speakers, texts, and places connected to this legacy, and will be remarking on them in as timely a fashion as possible. I will try not to squander too much felicity. As expressed in a May ’68 slogan: “If we only have enough time…”

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Filmic Vision in Blade Runner: A Montage

I haven’t had time to write my thoughts on Blade Runner 2049. I’ve seen the film three times now, and I’m still digesting the film and its implications. In the meantime, however, I’ve made a short montage of scenes from the original Blade Runner (though set to a piece of the new movie’s score). It’s something I’ve had in mind for a long time: a compilation of all the eye imagery, representations of vision, and related elements in the film. There’s nothing worse than an itch you can never scratch, so I’m relieved to have finally scratched this one. It’s about five minutes long and you can watch it below.


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/241344857″>Filmic Vision in Blade Runner</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user73754156″>Curry Chandler</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Also, last week I successfully tracked down the IMDB user review of Blade Runner from back in high school. I wrote it in 2003 when I was 17 years old. The review title declares Blade Runner the “epitome of film as an art form”. It was cringe-inducing for me to revisit after all these years, but I’m glad IMDB has maintained the reviews. You can read my Blade Runner review (and all my other IMDB user reviews) here.

Thoughts on Pittsburgh’s “Parts Unknown”

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News came out this summer that Anthony Bourdain was in town to film a Pittsburgh-based episode of his Parts Unknown program. I like Bourdain and his tv shows, and I am weirdly passionate about Pittsburgh, so I was eagerly awaiting the episode, especially after we learned of his visit to our favorite local bar (I say that like it’s some overlooked hole-in-the-wall; I’m talking about the Squirrel Hill Cafe, aka “The Cage,” which is an East End institution and deservedly so). Ahead of the episode’s premiere last night I saw several articles online calling Bourdain’s trip to Pittsburgh “inevitable.” Pittsburgh was an inevitable stop, they argue, because the city’s booming food scene and consistent ranking as a most-livable city has put it in the national spotlight. Pittsburgh has gotten a fair bit of national attention the last few years, but let’s not kid ourselves. Bourdain and crew came to Pittsburgh because he’s on the 10th season of his show and they’ve already gone to the exciting cities, so the only thing that made a Pittsburgh-centric Parts Unknown inevitable was the show’s continuation.

When word broke last June that Bourdain’s crew was filming around town user rockandrollcityplan posted this forecasted episode rundown on the Pittsburgh subreddit:

“Once downtrodden steel town (que shot of the Carrie Furnace) now changing in the face of gentrification that is creating a burgeoning food scene based on tradition (visit to Pierogies-Plus and then Apteka). Talk about a tradition of pushing out the city’s African American population with a visit to the Hill District (shot of the arena site and then new construction in East Liberty as a juxtaposition). Walk around Squirrel Hill and remark how one of the country’s largest Jewish enclaves is filled with a new Asian population (Everyday Noodles) but some vestiges of old Pittsburgh remain in its dive bars (Squirrel Cage). Something, something, filler in the Strip District… interview with Fetterman.”

Aside from Everyday Noodles and the Strip District, which did not appear in the episode, this prediction ended up being pretty spot-on. Now, the basic narrative beats of the episode can be inferred from Bourdain’s approach across the last 9 seasons of his show. I would characterize the overriding theme of Parts Unknown as old-vs-new: how places have changed, what has emerged, what has disappeared, and what it all means to the people who live there. And within this overriding theme I think there are 2 sub-categories that an episode of PU can fall into: (1), charting the (ostensible) erosion of local culture and tradition in the wake of globalization ; and (2), defying audience expectations about a place by showing that their stereotypical views are outdated and do not reflect modern conditions. There are other threads that run through many of the shows, like “the price of success” (new local businesses are doing well but they’re sowing the seeds of gentrification!) and “accepting the transience of existence”  (tradition diminishes but a new generation emerges).

So now that I’ve seen the episode, what do I make of it? Overall I was very impressed with the episode, and by the people and places the producers’ decided to include. I have to qualify my take on the program by saying that I am not a native Pittsburgher, have only lived here for four years and will likely move away in the not-too-distant future. But I have loved this city from my first day here, embracing its wonders and its flaws, and a great deal of my scholarly research centers on the city’s past, present, and future. Based on my experience here I thought they did a decent job of representing Pittsburgh, showcasing scenes of everyday life along with glimpses of the extreme ends of the economic divide, and was ultimately a more nuanced portrayal than I anticipated (not that I expected much in the first place). My criticisms of the presentation have to do with what was included rather than what was left out (Pittsburghers will surely argue endlessly about the episode’s grievous omissions), so let me run through some of the things I did and did not like about the show.

  • The opening teaser featured hand-made pierogie production, which might seem hackneyed to Pittsburghers but it’s also unavoidable.
  • The first sequence took place in Bloomfield, the neighborhood nearest and dearest to my own heart. I spotted some familiar neighborhood characters in the background and the sausage and peppers are all-too-familiar. Coming home across the Bloomfield Bridge I see the bocce players there regularly, even late into the evening. As I said I like the neighborhood, but a table of meats and sauce being overturned and spilling onto the ground seems like an apt representation of Bloomfield.
  • Wasn’t sure they would feature the Hill District, very glad that they did. An integral part of this city’s history and character that far too many Pittsburghers pass by unawares on a daily basis.
  • Bourdain’s ride-along with Sala Udin captured one of the most characteristic aspects of the Hill District: the neighborhood’s vocality, the call-and-response culture of friend and neighbors acknowledging one another on the street (even when passing in cars, as was seen in the episode).
  • The Hill District sequence also featured my favorite image of the entire episode: a woman ordering lunch at Grandma B’s wearing a Penguins jersey and a hijab .
  • The neon lights of Kelly’s at night seemed particularly telegenic.

Gripes and omissions:

  • No Liberty Tunnel shot. This is the biggest omission for me, way more than any bar or restaurant that went unmentioned. Arriving in Pittsburgh through the Liberty Tunnel is one of the great unique experiences that this city offers. From my first time careening through the tunnel in a U-Haul truck, to every time I return home after a trip, it is always a spectacular sensation to have the world open up upon exiting the tunnel as the city and river valley bursts into being all around you.
  • A small pet peeve, but Fetterman’s addressing Bourdain as “chef” is anachronistic considering Bourdain’s current full-time gig. If anything his honorific should be “TV Producer Tony,” or is it like the Presidency where you carry the title even after you leave office?
  • Other folks seem very upset at the wrestling sequence’s inclusion; it didn’t bother me, as a non-native Pittsburgher and non-wrestling fan I recognize the wrestling angle as an idiosyncratic quirk of the local culture.
  • The demolition derby, on the other hand, seemed out of place and served as a particularly weak ending to the episode. After traveling well beyond the Pittsburgh city limits, the show closes with scenes of automotive carnage underneath some banal closing narration from Bourdain. I’m paraphrasing from memory but this captures the gist:

“What will become of Pittsburgh? How do we welcome the promise of change while preserving what we love about our past? There are probably no easy answers, so for now, let’s just wreck some cars.”

I mean, I get that this show is essentially ‘food & place porn’ that airs on the wince-inducing middle-of-the-road CNN, but even with these measured expectations in mind, that’s a strikingly sophomoric and flippant sentiment to go out on. You’re already equivocating, so why use even more unnecessary weasel words? I mean, “probably” no easy answers? Why not just say that there are no easy answers? Would that risk offending the viewers who believe that there are easy answers, whatever their personal brand of myopic small-mindedness might be?

I’ve watched all of Bourdain’s tv series and enjoy each of them to varying degrees (Cook’s Tour is a grainier grungier early cut and The Layover is the underappreciated peak-travel-tv Bourdain), and his Zero Point Zero crew do excellent work but their reliance on certain templates becomes evident once you’ve seen enough of their productions. One of their favorite go-tos (more evident lately in their non-Bourdain projects) is the technique of editing around a big laugh. Need to transition to the next scene? Insert a clip of everyone having a nice big laugh then cut. And the derby finale sequence represents this sort of “big laugh” thinking on a larger scale: throw up some noise and spectacle to distract the viewers so we can make the big out. And Bourdain’s perfunctory closing narration plays a part in this as well, since who’s going to notice the utter vacuity of your parting words with all that slam-bang car crashing and little-kid-American-flag-waving going on?

I get it: Pittsburgh is so uninteresting the film crew had to drive 30 miles outside the city to film an *ahem* rural, all-American crowd enjoying a demolition derby. Television is a visual medium, after all, so perhaps they couldn’t find sufficient visual spectacle within the city limits. It is important, too, to recognize that Pittsburgh can’t represent all of the greater region, and the rural population is an important part of the contemporary political condition as indicated in the episode’s discussion of the state turning Republican in the last presidential election. But without any semblance of full-circle denouement or contextualization within all that had preceded it, this closing sequence was muddled and disappointing.

After the episode aired I went back to the Pittsburgh subreddit to gauge reactions. Initial responses were overwhelmingly negative, which is perhaps to be expected. Every place means many different things to the people who live there, and it is impossible for a 40 minute TV program to fully capture and represent the essence of a city from even a single individual’s perspective. The user-base of reddit probably skews young, and a number of the negative comments seemed to be responding to perceived attacks upon their generation and lifestyle choices. Among the perceived slights were dispersions cast on millenials, bicyclists, craft beer aficionados, and suburban residents who travel into the city for sports and other entertainment. What these commenters are overlooking, and others in the forum have pointed out, is that the show is called Parts Unknown and aims to represent the sort of lived experiences that are usually absent from mainstream media discourses. I mean, people actually expected a Rick Sebak-style milquetoast promotional showcase of the city? The bottom line is that if these self-identifying millenials want to be constantly catered to and reassured in their lifestyle choices they have no shortage of outlets.

Another theme in the negative reactions, and one I find much more troubling, is indignation that the Hill District was even featured in the episode at all. Apparently this historic neighborhood “doesn’t represent our city.” One commenter particularly criticized the depiction of the deleterious effects that the Civic Arena’s construction had on the Lower Hill. This person characterizes the Hill District’s development as sacrificing “a dying neighborhood in exchange for economy”. Ignoring the obvious vapidity and implicit racism of this statement, I have to ask what “dying neighborhood” this person is invoking? The vibrant Hill District of the 40s and 50s that was destroyed by this malign urban renewal scheme? The neighborhood which was among the most culturally verdant African American communities in the country? The neighborhood that produced August Wilson, Teenie Harris, and Gus Greenlee’s Crawford Grill? Or is it the Hill District of today that is “dying”? The one that remains cut off from the rest of the city (spatially, racially, economically, etc.) 60 years after the Civic Arena project? The one that is so far removed from the eyes and minds of most Pittsburghers we are angered when it appears on our television screens?

Make no mistake: the history of the Hill District, both good and ill, is integral to Pittsburgh’s identity and to its place in the history of this country. Pittsburgh mills may have contributed to the building of skycrapers and the defeat of tyrants, but the razing of the Hill District is just as significant to the history of our national consciousness. It is a history of residential segregation, uneven development, the destruction of black homes and neighborhoods, racial ghettoization, concentrated poverty, and discriminatory policing. More than 100 years ago the journalist Lincoln Steffens wrote about political corruption in Pittsburgh in his book The Shame of Our Cities. Pittsburgh’s industrial production and pollution may have earned the city’s nickname of “hell with the lid off,” Steffens said, but the city’s political landscape was “hell with the lid on.” The sprawling parking lot on the former Civic Arena site that once connected the Hill District to downtown Pittsburgh, and the bungled attempts at redeveloping that land, are continuing sources of shame for this city.

As Anthony Bourdain has pointed out, there are no easy answers. But who needs answers when we can go watch the demolition derby? Let’s go wreck some cars.

McLuhan birthday gets doodle

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Today’s Google doodle honors Marshall McLuhan’s 106th birthday. Traditionally these commemorative doodles use images and designs based on a historic event or person’s life to “spell” out a version of the Google logo. This animated doodle consists of scenes depicting the successive eras of communication media as outlined by McLuhan. Beginning with oral culture in tribal society, the subsequent images progress through: written language and alphabet; the assembly line industrialism of “typographic man;” an animated McLuhan speaking on a TV screen; a human figure drumming in a village scene (perhaps evoking “second orality” or the return of acoustic space); and finally village huts arranged around a circuit board node to represent the Global Village. Clicking the doodle brings up the McLuhan estate web site and his Wikipedia page, along with several news articles and editorials calling McLuhan “the man who predicted the internet.” This is extremely reductionist, of course, but what more can you expect from a Google search? Happy birthday, Herbert.