Look at that view.
I don’t typically find myself flocking to tourist spots when I’m visiting a city. I usually try to find the time to visit new museums and galleries, but at this point in my life trips to new cities are more often than not dictated by occasional chances to spend time with distant friends, and the typically high cost of visiting a tourist attraction is usually enough to stop any potential plans in their tracks.
My once-a-year family trips growing up tended to be filled front to back with visits to various tourist spots: the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center in New York, the Polar Caves in New Hampshire, and the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in North Carolina are a few of the countless daytrips that occupied my childhood summers. But at some point these trips came to a relative halt. I don’t think I’ve ever actively considered myself to be “too old” to enjoy a tourist attraction, but there’s something about living in a city – any city – that makes the consideration of visiting these sorts of destinations less compelling.
I visited Seattle this past week for Thanksgiving, and the day before the holiday I found myself at the base of the Space Needle with a ticket bearing a 2:30 PM reservation for an elevator ride to the tower’s observation deck. This was the first time in years that I held such a ticket, and as I rounded the ramps up to the elevator my cynical side was trying to get the best of me. I looked around at the swarms of families and other tourists eagerly awaiting the chance to ride to the top of the iconic structure, and my inner sarcastic self couldn’t help but smirk at the commotion surrounding me. As I stepped into the glass-walled elevator with my eyes ready to roll, my mood was quickly overpowered by the excitement in the air. In the years that had transpired since my last trip to the top of some tall building, I had managed to forget that the real reason to do these things is purely for the unashamed amusement.
Wednesday was beautiful, and the mid-afternoon sun cast a soft glow across the city’s skyline in all directions. We spent about an hour on top of the Needle, first gazing out from the outdoor deck and then sitting and drinking a beer inside the tower. It was refreshing to allow myself a bit of earnest enjoyment, and as I anticipate a few more trips out of Chicago I hope that I continue to set some time aside to simply sit back and look out.
Vestigial layers of analog cartography bleed into digital-age mapping
Illustration by Frederick Eschrich
The ground is purposefully sloped, not by any forces of nature, but by recent upheaval and reset. There is a new field, elevated above the foundations of old, new layers to the previous, new use. Walking across the newly paved cul-de-sac, I move beyond its edge and sink into the old land. There are two discernible stripes emanating from the knoll, indicating years of traffic, now permanently halted and redirected. The asphalt above has long forgotten its gravel ancestor beneath. Wild growth reclaims the old road, growing lush between the two stripes, and outside of them as well. The tire-wide lines, still with their rocky, permeable surface partially inhibit growth, appearing like a stereo version of Richard Long’s performative transits across various fields and slopes in Peru. The surface has a memory.
The memory is located in Rochester Township, not far from the red dotted lines of city limits for Rochester, Minnesota, a small city seventy miles south of Minneapolis. The vacant and rough pathway I traipse upon what was once part of a small route that crossed the south fork of the Zumbro River, a tributary of the Mississippi. Twenty-five years ago, a new road was built from the east, cutting through the field and hills and eventually making contact with the existing circuit and its two farms. In favor of the new roadway, the bridge over the Zumbro River was taken out, and much of the route through the woods abandoned.
I begin to walk the stripes, selecting one side as I do. I admire their scarce detectability like apparitions and wonder how much longer they will be visible. Tangible histories in the landscape are often things of finitude, objects that signify within the landscape gradually become disassociated from their narratives, faltering and impartial stories. The ground is evaporating, being overlooked, turning to translucent, dubious signs and surfaces, and much, much less. Ghosts are here.
For many years, maps drawn since the route’s change showed the street, known as Old Valley Road, as something that still crossed the Zumbro River. Other maps showed the new road leading from the other direction, called Meadow Crossing Road, and extending to the river’s edge. Until last year, many online maps such as Google and Bing showed the road in this way, terminating at the former bridge site. It had been many years since any cars could drive that far down the road.
Among the many means available to see this process, land changes are clearly made visible through the maps we have available to us, in both print and digital form. There are editions regularly published, yet rendered out-of-date due to the constantly evolving landscape of roads and highways. It is important to note that both types of media are subject to the same errors and speed of updating. Yet today we rely on digital data, which can be updated and made available to people much more easily than print.
Aside from its accompanying visual metabolism, the raw data of digital cartography (e.g., place-naming) is soft. It is subject to change with the whims and exploitations of the user of the land. More than anything, the text in any map is a system predicated upon recognition and significance. The way in which we identify a place changes over time. For example, all mail now requires an address number and zip plus four. Gone are the days of using a last name and county road, town, and state, to mail something to a rural address. Gone too are the days of using an intersection as an address to mail to an urban location. Online ordering is where this change is more visible as many address entry systems for online order forms will “correct” your address by implementing abbreviations. In other cases, the name of your town, city, or populated place may be disregarded by location databases if a larger, more significant place is nearby. The very text of the system is being altered over time, a combination of functional efficiency and trends of the general populace.
While passing through the swampy forests of the Southeast or the dusty plains of the West, it’s worth taking detours to admire a few of the idiosyncrasies that make the U.S. Great — strange roadside attractions. Here are some especially offbeat options, which both epitomize and cater to our collective love of oddities, magic and all things biggest and best.
Babyland General Hospital
Cabbage Patch Kids are born from cabbages, and cabbages are deadbeats as far as parenting goes. This doll nursery/orphanage, nestled in the hometown of CPK creator Xavier Roberts, allows visitors to adopt the dimpled infants straight from their cribs and playrooms. There’s even a magical patch of “mother cabbages” — after fertilization from the fairy-winged Bunnybees, you can watch a staff nurse deliver a doll from a leafy, plush birth canal. Sweet dreams, kids!
Photo from babylandgeneral.com.
World’s Largest Twine Ball Rolled By One Man
Francis A. Johnson started this ball of baler twine in 1950 and rolled for four hours every day for 29 years. The result is 12 feet in diameter and weighs 17,400 pounds.
Photo by Matthew Sachs.
World’s Largest Ball of Twine Built By a Community
Cawker City, Kansas
Because there can never be too many World’s Largest Balls of Twine. This one was begun by Cawker resident Frank Stoeber, and he had 1.6 million feet on it by the time he died in 1974. The ball rests under an open-air gazebo, where every year a “Twine-a-thon” is held to add more twine. Today the ball is over 40 feet in circumference and weighs more than nine tons.
Photo from kansastravel.org.
The Weeki Wachee Mermaids
Recently featured in the New York Times, this underwater theater has offered “live mermaid” shows for decades. In 1947 local entrepreneur and diver Newton Perry built the attraction into the side of a natural spring which feeds into the Weeki Wachee river. The basin contains airlocks and air hoses so that the performers, clad in elaborate 60-pound prosthetic fish tails, can dive up to 20 feet deep and breathe in between their synchronized swimming moves. The attraction suffered after the openings of Orlando’s string of mega-parks, but it gained state park status in 2008 and is still going strong.
Photo from weekiwachee.com.
The Flintstone’s Bedrock City Theme Park & Camping Resort
Custer, South Dakota
Technicolor concrete Flintstones’ architecture looks a bit out of place in the grassy hillsides of South Dakota, but this full-service campground, built in 1966, offers a plethora of amenities including an arcade, hiking trails, a heated swimming pool and mini golf. Visit the nearby Bedrock City theme park to admire Mount Rockmore, a Mount Rushmore spoof starring the faces of Flintstones characters.
Photo from flintstonesbedrockcity.com.
S. P. Dinsmoor’s Garden of Eden
When the eccentric Civil War veteran and social commentator S. P. Dinsmoor retired from teaching and farming in 1905, he began work on a house that would function as both a home and tourist attraction. He carved a towering concrete sculpture forest of surreal Biblical and war scenes that embodied his Populist ideals — most intriguing is perhaps the giant hovering eyeball representing the eye of God. He even built a custom mausoleum on the property for himself and his first wife. When the city forbade him to keep her corpse after her death, he simply dug her up from Lucas Cemetery and brought her home. Dinsmoor is now also displayed in this tomb in a glass-topped casket where, per his request, visitors can view his body for a small fee.
Photo from Astromoe on Wikimedia.
House on the Rock
Between Dodgeville and Spring Green, Wisconsin
Architect Alex Jordan sought validation by building an elaborate Japanese-influenced structure on the side of 60-foot-tall Deer Shelter Rock. The result, which opened for admission in 1959, is startlingly complex — Frank Lloyd Wright-gone-awry — and has been additionally built upon for decades. The home is cluttered with every sort of knick-knack and novelty including mannequins, preserved animals and a “Music of Yesterday” room filled with automated music machines. Author Neil Gaiman found the house so eerie that he included it as a key setting in his bestselling novel “American Gods.” The forgotten god Wednesday (Odin) likens roadside attractions to religious sacred spaces, and the chintzy House on the Rock functions as a portal to his mind, reached by riding its dizzying (world’s largest, of course) indoor carousel.
Photo from Jasenlee on Wikimedia.
Illustration by Alli Berry
The first time I saw the sunrise over Lake Michigan, I was in Hyde Park. It was two in the morning. I was 19, and neither I nor my companions had fake IDs. After spending 30 listless minutes asking one another: “Well, what do you want to do?” we decided that the beach was as good a place as any to kill the hours before dawn.
From the Museum of Science and Industry, we trudged south to a strip of sand east of 57th Street. We sat there with our bag of Cheetos Puffs until the sky turned orange. As the sun broke over the horizon, the most listless of us swallowed a Cheeto and said: “This would’ve been awesome, if we hadn’t been staring at Gary.”
Even at 19, I knew this was a petulant thing to say. Petulant, but accurate — I also thought that Gary, Indiana was a miserable sight. Not only is the industrial skyline unpleasant, but it serves as a reminder of a Chicago that its twenty-first century residents would rather forget.
In its rush to become a “global city” with an economy stimulated by a global stock market rather than local trade and manufacturing, Chicago is eager to ignore its Rust Belt past. Unsanitary as it may be, the Gary shore has the potential to serve as a useful counterbalance to this mad urge toward globalization — even if it can sometimes make swimming difficult.
Chicago has long struggled to shed its image as Hog-Butcher to the world. Though blood no longer runs through the river, a distrust of the city’s waterways remains. Though modern-day Chicago makes more of an effort to protect the lake than it once did, the Chicago Tribune reports 19 billion gallons of contaminated storm-water dumped into Lake Michigan between 2007 and 2010.
In AOL Travel’s list of the most polluted beaches in the U.S., three Gary-adjacent beaches — Jeorse Park Beaches I and II in Indiana’s Lake County, and Jackson Park Beach on the South Side of Chicago — broke the top ten. Indeed, Jeorse Park Beach I was ranked as the most polluted beach in the country.
Gary’s pollution regulations are notoriously lax, serving as incentive for U.S. Steel and other industrial giants to continue doing business in the region. (This is the reason that the Calumet River is virtually inhospitable to life today.) The city’s skyline consists of little more than factory after factory.
Chicago is certainly a much more vibrant city than Gary, but a ride through the West Side reveals a staggering number of abandoned factories. While the city itself may be healthy, its working-class residents are still reeling from the loss of industry.
Chicago’s best view of Gary might be from Calumet Park, a beach on the Illinois/Indiana border. Standing on its shores, the Chicago skyline is nowhere to be seen. With the mills and refineries of Northwest Indiana spread out before you, it’s easy to forget that anything as abstract as a “global city” exists. To your left is a boat launch, to your right, a Coast Guard outpost.
From the launch, a barge sets sail. Objects that can only be described as rigs dot the horizon. Some of these can be spotted from the North Side, but from that distance they’re little more than shadows. This close, you can see that they’re painted yellow and grey. You can also make out ladders, lattices and poles.
There are beaches, but the strips of sand can be best described as perfunctory. One is only wide enough to house a lifeguard’s tower. A yellow flag hangs from one, informing beachgoers that there are troubling amounts of E. coli in the water. No lifeguards are on duty, but this isn’t a surprise — it’s 61 degrees outside.
One leaves with the sense that recreation isn’t the point of this particular stretch of Lake Michigan. It would be ill-advised to vaunt Gary as a symbol of lost twentieth-century productivity; the town was founded by U.S. Steel in an attempt to avoid negotiating with Chicagoan labor activists, and the company has continued to have a strained relationship with its workers ever since. But it does stand in stark contrast to the shuttered warehouses on Chicago’s South and West Sides.
Reckoning with Gary — that is, considering it as something more than a blight on the horizon — forces Chicagoans to ask serious questions about the way we run our city. Our beaches might be cleaner and more attractive than Gary’s, but what happened to our industry? Will our city truly be better off without it? These are issues worth considering even if it cuts into our sunbathing time.
No disrespect to the new interest in print publications, but there are also beautiful things happening with online journals, particularly in terms of interface and functionality. I had all but given up trying to deal with the excruciating “page flip” animation of scribd and other similar formats, but the elegant and intuitive layout of new short-form quarterly Edits, from Portland-based designer Ian Coyle, may have changed my mind.
This week: Edits quarterly, issue no. 1, Winter 2012, Voyager
The vibe: Sun-speckled mountaintops and highways, analog photos in digital form (complete with shadowed frames), lots of Bodoni italic, and sweet “interlude” illustrations based on on navigation route maps
Not so much a magazine as a series of like-minded photo journals, vignettes gathered around short personal anecdotes from contributors on the theme of that issue’s title. The first iteration, Voyager, follows contributors from small towns in the Pacific Northwest to unspecified Japanese metropoli. Detailed travel accounts are not the goal here, so much as general vibes (or specters, more sophisticatedly) of place and memory colliding in the photographic image. Naturally, then, if location (and even author) are secondary, the camera model itself is the crucial contributor, and prominently displayed.
Travel as a mode of personal exploration is the overarching message, and the included content speaks not so much to vagabond abandon but to recurrent loops of habitual behavior: trips always seem to be trips home, trips back or trips away, rather than voyages unto themselves. Maybe it’s through this lens of reconsideration (contributors all seem to be sharing trips that are several years past) that we discover larger patterns in our voyage’s trajectory.
Now, where am I going this summer…?
Brooklyn Street. Image courtesy Mina Matlon
“I’m not an artist,” New Yorker Dana Eskelson disclaimed in July when describing her project in response to the Paris-based photo-graffiti artist JR’s global call to “stand up for what you care about.” JR is the 2011 recipient of the Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) prize, which offers its winners the opportunity to make a wish to change the world with $100,000 and the support of the TED Community.
Accepting the prize in March, JR expressed his wish to “turn the world inside out” by inviting individuals and communities to take part in a global participatory art project. Stating, “what we see changes who we are, [and] when we act together, the whole thing is much more than the sum of the parts,” JR hoped that “together we’ll create something that the world will remember.” Called “Inside Out,” the project builds on the artistic process for which JR is known: close collaborations with communities to create large-scale photographic portraits of its members that are then affixed to the surfaces of public buildings. The images invite the public to seek out and speak with the individuals represented in the portraits.
“Inside Out” differs from JR’s past projects in that the role of the artist is turned over to the community members themselves. The project website, insideoutproject.net, provides the following simple instructions for participation: “Upload a portrait. Receive a poster. Paste it for the world to see.” To date, over 9,000 photos have been uploaded to the project website in locations as wide-ranging as Cape Town, Oslo, Lima and Brooklyn.
Six months after the JR/TED team launched “Inside Out,” F Newsmagazine spoke with approximately 50 members of the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, regarding the community’s implementation of one of the first “Inside Out” projects worldwide and the first in New York. Was this organically constructed project fulfilling JR’s wish to change the way members of a community see each other?
Park Slope and Atlantic Yards
Construction on Atlantic Yards Project. Image courtesy Mina Matlon
Park Slope is a culturally diverse area in the midst of gentrification, home to trendy new cafes, established corner bodegas and a contentious development project known as Atlantic Yards. According to its website, Atlantic Yards will consist of a public plaza, affordable housing, retail space and a new stadium for the New Jersey Nets basketball team.
Over the years, Atlantic Yards has been the subject of numerous protests. Many residents oppose the project, citing increased traffic and general disruption to the character of neighboring Brooklyn communities. Business owners in the area, however, generally express more complicated views of Atlantic Yards. Echoing the sentiments of most business owners interviewed, Pete Kocher, co-owner of Ride Brooklyn bike shop, stated, “Everyone will be impacted. It will be okay for business. For living…less so.”
The Park Slope Project
Motivated by JR’s TED speech, Park Slope resident Dana Eskelson wanted to join “Inside Out” in making a difference but was unsure how to participate. She ultimately drew inspiration from the community she loved, the long-term shop owners who added texture and history to that community and her belief, shared by many residents, that “a lot of businesses can’t make it” because of Atlantic Yards.
Homeowner of a brownstone located on a leafy, moderately trafficked street approximately one block away from Atlantic Yards, the ten-year resident invited those of her neighbors whose houses possessed stoops, approximately 44 of the almost 60 houses located on her block, to participate in the art project. Eskelson wanted to recognize the local shop owners, “the vast majority [of which] are immigrants who have been here for years and are still here, despite the massive rent hikes and gentrification.” In a letter explaining the project’s purpose, she stated, “Will [the shop owners] be able to stay once the stadium is built? We have come to depend on them – and yet they all remain largely unknown, and somewhat unseen. I’d like to change that. I’d like to show our appreciation and honor and thank them…I’d like them to be able to tell their story.” Seventeen residents representing 11 brownstones donated their stoops for the project.
Detail of Inside Out Project Installation. Image courtesy Mina Matlon
“Everyone had an opinion,” Eskelson noted of the business owners neighbors wanted profiled on their stoops. She made the final selections, choosing 11 individuals, 10 of whom are immigrants, and, after a friend took the owner’s photographs, picked which photos would be turned into portraits. On May 9, Eskelson, her family, friends and several neighbors attached the portraits to the participating brownstone stoops.
When I toured the art installation several months later I was greeted by photographs intermittently spaced on both sides of the block in the form of 36 by 48 inch black and white head shots cut horizontally and pasted across the brownstones’ stairs. Some of the faces smiled directly at me, while others appeared stern, downcast or stared contemplatively into the distance; none of the images contained any identifying information. The photographs’ sheer size made them compelling, but their placement on the stoops distorted the faces, rendering several of them difficult to discern. The tired or concerned expression in so many of the portraits, combined with their distortion, created an overall impression of something lost.
The installation of this first “Inside Out” project in New York was followed by generally favorable press coverage in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Huffington Post and the Brooklyn Paper. But a closer review of the Park Slope project reveals striking differences from the participatory model existing in JR’s own projects and envisioned in JR’s TED wish.
When We Act Together
Omitted from the Park Slope project were two key features JR referenced in his TED wish: collaboration and recognition. The Park Slope project was Eskelson’s idea, and her insular approach to its design and execution resulted in a participatory art project that had minimal participatory features.
Eskelson’s belief that the project “brought my neighbors closer together,” was countered by a participating neighbor, who asked not to be named in this article due to concerns that the neighbor’s frankness would not be well-received by other neighbors: “[It was] not a unifying project at all.” Rather, when the portraits went up, “my neighbor looked at mine, and I looked at theirs, and that’s it.” The resident further expressed dissatisfaction with the business-owner selection process, feeling no real connection with the individual ultimately featured on the resident’s stoop.
Detail of Inside Out Project Installation. Image courtesy Mina Matlon
Similarly, all six of the interviewed profiled business owners noted that their sole involvement in the project was having their photo taken. Echoing the experience related by most owners, Paul, the thirty-year owner of a fruit and vegetable store, had little knowledge of the resident on whose stoop his photo had been placed and was unable to identify many of the other owner participants. Regular customers had informed him that his photo had been pasted, and he had been to the block to see his photo. As Eskelson suspected, neither Paul nor any of the other owners had more than a vague understanding as to the purpose of the project.
Eskelson has not spoken with the owners regarding their experience with the project. As quoted by the Wall Street Journal, “I haven’t asked the business owners what they think. I don’t want to pressure them to thank me. I just wanted to do it and have people feel whatever they feel.” She was not alone: none of the residents interviewed for this article had asked their profiled business owners what they thought of the project. Reflecting on the experience, the resident who asked to remain anonymous felt strongly that the project would have had more of an impact with greater participation from the residents and better communication with the business owners: “What should have happened [is that] you … have to do a little more legwork, really talk to people.”
What We See Changes Who We Are
Interviews with Park Slope community members revealed that very few were aware of or understood the purpose of the Park Slope project. Many residents had walked directly past the portraits and failed to notice them. Those who had seen the project either did not recognize the profiled owners or incorrectly identified them. For example, told that all the photographs were of local vendors, a barista at a coffee shop a block away from the project insisted, “I’m pretty sure I saw some famous dead people, like Albert Einstein. You’re sure?”
Detail, Inside Out Project Installation. Image courtesy Mina Matlon
When informed that the primary purpose of the project was to provide local business owners who would be impacted by Atlantic Yards with recognition and support, there was unanimous support for the project by residents.
The profiled business owners, on the other hand, did not share the presumption inherent in the project’s purpose. Language difficulties made it hard to ascertain some of the owners’ full views on Atlantic Yards, but the participating owners generally shared the cautious view of the business community that Atlantic Yards could have a positive impact on business in the neighborhood. Residents’ misperception of the owners’ views clearly indicated that the profiled business owners remained unseen and unheard by residents.
“Inside Out” set out to change the world through a participatory art project but provided minimal guidance on how community collaborations should take place. In Park Slope, the project appears to have been lost in translation. Michelle, a profiled owner of a Mediterranean restaurant, summarized the Park Slope project: “I don’t know how much impact it has had.”